'Real possibility' of pensions deal, says Danny Alexander


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The Independent Online

A Government minister said today there was a "very realistic possibility" of reaching a deal on public sector pensions despite the huge strike by workers and threats of more industrial action.

Unions said yesterday's walkout was the biggest since the 1979 Winter of Discontent, maintaining that up to two million workers, ranging from lollipop ladies and school cleaners to headteachers and nuclear physicists, had taken part.

The Government said the figure was wrong, with Prime Minister David Cameron telling the Commons the strike was a "damp squib".

It emerged last night that police were called in provide support to London Ambulance Service, which faced "severe pressure" because of the dispute, with 42% of its staff on strike.

Talks will be held today between the Government and teaching unions, and with health unions tomorrow, as efforts continue to reach a deal and head off further industrial action.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said today he believed there was a "good chance" of reaching agreement, adding that there was still a lot of detail to be discussed with the unions.

"There is a very realistic possibility of reaching agreement," he told BBC TV. "The Government is committed to achieving an agreement, as are most trade union leaders. We are working as constructively as we can on that basis."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said she will approach today's talks in a "positive" way and continue to work in good faith to find a negotiated settlement to the Government's planned pension reforms.

"If we cannot make progress we may need to consider further strike and other action alongside our colleagues in other unions where appropriate," she said.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Up to two million public service workers have stopped work to send a strong and united message to the Government.

"Ministers cannot dismiss the stand taken by these ordinary decent people, the majority of whom will probably have been on strike for the first time in their lives.

"The biggest strike in a generation cannot be dismissed as a damp squib. The claims that all low-paid workers will be protected and that the average workers will get better pensions collapse under the slightest scrutiny.

"Ministers should have taken careful note of what has happened. Uniting so many people in such strong opposition to their pension plans should give the Government pause for thought.

"They now need to give the negotiations real content. Unions wants to achieve a fair settlement, but it takes two to reach a deal."

Ministers try to break strikes by splitting teachers from the crowd