ishi Sunak has invited all union leaders for what he hopes will be “grown-up, honest” talks on Monday in an attempt to end the wave of strikes.
He noticeably did not rule out that the discussions could be on this year’s pay, though, it was not clear whether the Government was budging on its stance so far which has clashed with unions’ demands.
Speaking on a visit to a school in Battersea, south-west London, the Prime Minister said: “Yesterday the Government wrote to all union leaders inviting them in for talks on Monday.”
Pressed whether the talks would include discussions on this year’s pay, the Prime Minister did not rule this out, saying: “What we have said is we want to have a grown-up, honest conversation with all union leaders about what is responsible, what is reasonable, and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay.
“I’m hopeful that those talks can be constructive and we can find a way through this.”
Asked whether he could meet the nursing union’s demands “halfway” after it suggested a pay rise of ten per cent rather than nearly double, the PM added: “We have always been clear that we want to have a grown-up, honest conversation, a two way conversation with union leaders.”
The Standard understands that the move is a new approach by the Government, with Cabinet ministers, not the PM, meeting the unions that their departments work with, and that the Government aims to talk about pay deals for 2023/24 rather than this year.
However, the stand-off between the Government and unions has escalated after ministers proposed bringing in legislation to force some sectors which could include health, rail and border security, to continue delivering a “minimum service” during industrial action.
Mr Sunak did not rule out people being sacked for not going to work during strikes under the proposed new legislation.
Asked a second time whether people could be sacked for not going to work under the new law, the premier said: “I fully believe in the unions’ role in our society and the freedom for them to strike.
“I also believe that that should be balanced with the right of ordinary working people to go about their lives free from significant disruption.
“That’s why we’re going to bring forward new laws, in common with countries like France, Italy, Spain and others, that ensure that we have minimum levels of safety in critical areas like fire, like ambulance, so that even when strikes are going on you know that your health will be protected.
“I think that’s entirely reasonable and that’s what our new laws will do.”
But RMT general secretary Mick Lynch described the legislation that will aim to minimise disruption during industrial action as a “symbol” that the Government is “losing the argument”.
Speaking from the picket line at Euston station, he said: “They want to close that argument down by closing down the unions and stopping us from campaigning against poverty.”
He said the proposed bill was a threat to sack union members if they refuse to go to work.
“They are going to conscript our members,” he argued.
“We have to name who will go to work, and if those members in a lawful manner don’t want to cross our picket line they can be dismissed individually and the union can be fined.
“So we will have to see what the law says.”
Labour has said it would repeal the “minimum service” laws, if they are passed before the General Election, and if it wins the poll expected next year.
Britain is being hit by a wave of strikes including by rail workers, nurses, paramedics, postal workers, border staff and civil servants.
Unions are pushing for significant pay rises this year to avoid real wages suffering a major blow due to inflation which has sky-rocketed into double figures.
But the Government has so far largely refused their demands, arguing that big pay rises will fuel an inflation spiral and are unaffordable given the dire state of the public finances.
Mr Sunak added: “I think everyone agrees that the most pressing economic priority we have is reducing the cost of living and getting a grip of inflation is the best way we can do that to ease the cost of living, not only for nurses, but for everyone.
“That’s why earlier this week I made five promises about what I wanted to do and that was to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats.”
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