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Strikes in essential services may be banned following damaging stoppages by London Under-ground drivers and postal workers, and the threatened strike by British Airways.

Plans to outlaw such strikes in the 1980s were dropped because of fears of a showdown with millions of union members, and the difficulties of deciding which workers should be included and what penalties would be used against those who broke the law.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said a framework was now being set up to reduce strike action. But more sceptical Whitehall sources said that this kind of tough-minded legislation always came to ministers' minds amid a period of disruption, only to be dropped when the threat was over. Legislation before the election was unlikely, they suggested, but a pledge in the Conservative manifesto is a possibility. Barrie Clement