Union demands are ‘economically incoherent’, says education secretary on biggest strike day in decade

A coordinated series of strikes involving teachers, civil servants, Border Force staff and train drivers, will see up to half a million workers go on strike across Britain today. It marks the single biggest day of industrial action for more than a decade.

Around 85% per cent of the 23,000 state schools in England and Wales will be fully or partly closed, as teachers in England and Wales hold their first national strike since 2016 today.

The department of education has offered a 5% pay rise to most teachers for the current school year, but the National Education Union (NEU) is demanding an inflation-busting pay rise.

Reacting to the latest round of strikes, education secretary Gillian Keegan said public sector demands for double-digit pay rises are “economically incoherent”.

She told Times Radio: “If we pay inflation, above inflationary pay rises to a small sector of people then that will fuel inflation, it will make it worse for everybody for longer.

“It wouldn’t work, it is economically incoherent. The most important thing to do… is tackle inflation otherwise everything else will just continue to eat away at the pound in people’s pockets. So we have to look after the whole of the country, we have to make sure we do the right thing economically for everybody”.

Responding to reports that teachers are having to rely on food banks because they are not paid enough, Ms Keegan blasted the idea as “not credible”.

She told Times Radio: “I go to my food banks a lot because I am actually very interested in why people do go to food banks and usually they are there, everyone is different, but they are there in an emergency situation.

“I think the Trussell Trust say on average I think people need to use two food bank vouchers to get themselves out of a crisis every year so that’s kind of what happens and they are there for an emergency and anyone can find themselves in an emergency or a crisis”.

Headteachers have complained that they are struggling to plan for the impact of strikes because teachers were being instructed by union leaders not to tell them if they planned to attend work. Ms Keegan said that she was “surprised” to learn that this was legal, adding: “I did write to everybody urging them to be constructive, to let their heads know, and I am sure many teachers will have done that”.

She later told Sky News that the legal position would remain “under review”.

Also among those striking today are train drivers in Aslef and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), who are embroiled in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions.

About 600 military personnel are expected to be deployed today to mitigate the effects of the strikes.

A further 24-hour strike by Aslef will be held on Friday. The train drivers’ union warned that more walkouts could follow, claiming that negotiations to settle the pay dispute have “gone backwards”.

Simon Weller, assistant general secretary of Aslef, said an initial offer last month by negotiators from the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) was “designed to fail”. The offer was for an 8% pay rise over two years with strings attached. 

The union was angered that it was immediately released to the press before it could respond, saying the move “broke all confidence”.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the largest trade union representing British civil servants, told Sky News this morning that 40,000 civil servants are now using food banks and 45,000 are claiming in-work benefits.

He said that people who are delivering “key decisions across a range of public services” have had their pay cut for 10 consecutive years and now qualify for the national minimum wage

“So there is a crisis of in-work poverty”.