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Trade Unions and UK Government Hold Talks in Bid to End NHS, Rail, and Teachers’ Strikes

Government ministers have been meeting the leaders of three separate trade unions in an effort to bring to an end some of the industrial action which has caused disruption all over Britain.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay met leaders of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and other unions in London about pay demands in the National Health Service (NHS).

Barclay, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, said he was “ready to engage with the unions on what the government can do to support the workforce, and I look forward to talking with them about how we make any pay settlement done through the independent pay body more affordable where there are productivity and efficiency opportunities.”

Rail minister Huw Merriman is also in negotiations with the RMT union, while teachers’ union leaders are meeting Education Secretary Gillian Keegan as both sides seek to avert next week’s planned strike.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave signs of a softening stance on pay over the weekend and, writing on the Conservative Home website on Monday, he said, “Today, ministers from across government will be meeting with the unions to set out how we can resolve these disputes in a responsible and reasonable way.”

He said: “I accept the freedom of individuals to strike, but this must be balanced with the rights of everyone else to safely go about their lives. That’s why we introduced new laws—in common with countries such as France, Italy and Spain—to ensure we have minimum levels of safety in critical areas like our ambulance and fire services.”

No ‘Tangible Concessions’ From Government

After the talks with Barclay, Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said: “It was a very civil meeting. We did actually manage to talk about pay. We didn’t get the tangible concessions that we might have hoped for that would enable us to call off the strikes later this week.”

“But it was definitely progress when you’re in a room with the secretary of state talking about pay, I think. He’s asked for our help to help with the Treasury to make the case for investment. We’ll certainly do that,” added Gorton.

Patricia Marquis, director for England at the RCN, told Sky News it was “unlikely” next week’s strikes would be called off but she said, “If there are chinks of hope, if there are further meetings, then I and my colleagues will all maintain optimism that we can get a resolution without nurses having to be on the picket lines again later this month.”

She said the RCN was “willing to compromise” and had asked the government to “meet us halfway,” adding, “The exact detail of what that would look like, obviously, needs to take place within a closed room, within a negotiation.”

But she said, “Unless we’re able to have a conversation about this year’s pay award, then, sadly, this isn’t going to resolve the dispute that we currently have with the government.”

In his piece for The Telegraph, Barclay stressed the need for “productivity and efficiency opportunities,” but Marquis said this left her feeling “very, very worried.”

She said: “It shows a level of misunderstanding of the situation the NHS and nursing is in at the moment. There aren’t enough staff to deliver the care that needs to be delivered and there isn’t enough funding in the NHS.”

Marquis said: “There’s always some sort of efficiencies that can be made but it really does sound like what they’re trying to do is get … the NHS to fund its own pay award and we don’t think that’s possible. We really think this needs to be extra money that is clearly earmarked for for nursing pay.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told the BBC that RCN Chief Executive Pat Cullen was “a tough negotiator” who “stands up for her members, and I think she’s genuinely speaking for nurses and representing the opinion of nurses.”

He said: “She actually offered to call off the nurses’ strike before Christmas if the government would sit down and negotiate on pay. She is now offering to meet the government halfway. Surely that is a good starting point now for serious talks on pay?”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said she was “very pleased” to be meeting Keegan but told the BBC, “This is a crisis which has been building for 12 years, as we have seen teachers leave our schools and children are left without the specialist teachers they need in order to fulfil their potential.”

She said the government had to put “more money on the table now” and “commit to proper negotiations.”

PA Media contributed to this report.

Chris Summers
Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.

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