Headteachers, doctors, top civil servants and police chiefs joined forces last night with major trade unions to present a united front against changes to public-sector pensions that look likely to trigger a summer of industrial discontent.
Ministers were warned they would face a backlash that would bring together professional organisations and traditionally militant unions if the Government implemented proposals from the Labour peer Lord Hutton for a radical overhaul of pensions.
Lecturers are set to walk out within weeks over changes to pensions and teachers and civil servants are planning to ballot members next month on industrial action. The GMB union said the Hutton plans could "light the blue touch paper for industrial action", while the Public and Commercial Services union said strikes were inevitable if the proposals were implemented. Union leaders will meet the Government next week over moves that have already been announced to raise public-sector employees' pension contributions by 3 per cent. But the situation has been inflamed by Lord Hutton's key recommendation that public-sector workers should lose their final salary pensions and instead be enrolled in schemes linked to their average pay.
Lord Hutton also called for the age at which most public-sector staff start drawing their pension to be brought in line with the state pension age, while members of the armed forces, police and firefighters would not be able to retire before 60.
He said his proposals would make the pension arrangements of millions of public-sector employees fairer and more affordable. The Government would not be drawn on his plans, but George Osborne, the Chancellor, is expected to indicate in the Budget on 23 March that he is sympathetic to most of them. One exception could be proposed changes to armed forces pensions, which can currently be claimed in full after 22 years of service; ministers may feel wary of cutting back those entitlements with troops in action in Afghanistan. An early flashpoint could be Britain's schools, where the two biggest headteachers' organisations warned of industrial action for the first time in their history.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) have sounded out members and found a substantial majority would be prepared to take industrial action. The University and College Union is expecting members to start strike action later this month after their employers ruled out talks over moves to increase pension contributions.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers predicted a stampede for early retirement in August. Doctors' leaders delivered a similar warning, predicting an exodus of GPs in their 50s, who would choose to retire rather than agree to work to an older age.
Even the Police Superintendents' Association joined the outcry. Tim Jackson, its national deputy secretary, said: "Officers feel they are being made to take more than their fair share of the economic pain."