Ministers were last night preparing to face down the biggest civil service strike for more than 17 years which is set to disrupt jobcentres, benefit offices, courts and immigration centres.
Civil service union leaders yesterday called a 48-hour strike next Thursday and Friday involving more than 100,000 staff in five Whitehall departments to force an improvement in pay offers.
But government sources said that management would not "give in", making clear that ministers would take a hard line similar to the approach they adopted in last year's fire dispute.
The leaders of PCS, the largest Whitehall union, are insisting on salary increases of over 3 per cent and demanding that ministers honour alleged commitments to move staff up pay scales. Employees in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Home Office, Prison Service, Department for Constitutional Affairs, together with Treasury solicitors, have voted by narrow majorities - ranging from 54 per cent to 63 per cent - to take industrial action.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the union, said that the 48-hour walkout would be followed by overtime bans, work to rules and a "withdrawal of goodwill" aimed at disrupting the work of departments. He appealed to the public hit by the strikes not to blame low-paid workers.
"The finger of blame should be pointed firmly at the Government and these departments. We are sorry for any inconvenience the action will cause but there comes a point when you have to do something about poverty pay."
Mr Serwotka said there was a "crisis" over pay rates in the civil service and urged the Government to meet the union to head off next week's action. "[Ministers] don't seem to have the slightest idea how people are struggling to live on £10,000 a year."
Mr Serwotka said it had come up against the "dead hand" of the Treasury during pay talks and insisted that money was available to settle the disputes.
The DWP said fewer than 22,000 of its 136,000 staff had voted for strikes, adding: "This is not a sound basis on which to risk disrupting services to some of the most needy people in our society."
A spokesman said the department had made a good pay offer, worth an average 5 per cent, with some staff getting as much as 8 per cent. He said the department was prepared to talk to the union about the "shape" of the offer.