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Paul Vallely: Strikes will not be solved by soldiers  

16 December 2022

Ministers should come to the negotiating table, declares Paul Vallely

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WHAT is an army for? Beyond the defence of the realm, it can deploy its effective command and logistics structures to cope with natural crises such as flooding, Covid, or even disposing of dead animals during foot-and-mouth disease. But what about strikes?

Government ministers held Cobra emergency meetings this week to consider plans for soldiers to take the place of striking ambulance-drivers and Border Force staff at ports and airports. But should it be the military’s job to cope with what are civic contingencies rather than civic emergencies?

Army top brass clearly don’t think so. The retired General Sir Richard Barrons has made it clear that soldiers should be resting after a busy year, especially since many soldiers worked through Christmas last year, helping out the NHS during Covid. Lord Dannatt, a former chief of the general staff, went further, talking of “industrial disputes that many people think government could resolve but for political purposes chooses not to”.

The Sunak Government, some pundits suggest, hopes that prolonged strikes will win voters back to the Conservatives. It is a risky strategy. Many of the public share the strikers’ resentment at a decade of austerity, inefficiency, and corruption — all of which eviscerated our public services and eroded the living standards of ordinary people. Inflation-hit voters are as likely to blame the Tories as the strikers.

Ministers insist that the nation cannot afford the £23 billion that it would cost to give an inflation-equalling pay rise to every public-sector worker in the country. But voters will recall that 40 short days of disastrous Trussonomics cost far in excess of that. And they know that when private-sector pay is rising 6.9 per cent, against just 2.7 per cent for public servants, the result will be that the chronic shortage of workers — particularly in the NHS — will only worsen. Applicants for nursing this week dropped ten per cent, according to UCAS.

Conservative MPs, whose salaries have risen by 28 per cent since 2010, insist that ministers must stay out of negotiations, since their hands are tied by the recommendations of independent pay-review bodies. This is disingenuous. The members and chairs of pay-review bodies are all appointed by ministers — and they each receive a remit from the Government every year which sets out overall pay policy, including recommended pay caps.

This year, the NHS pay-review body was told that ministers expected “an affordable headline pay award of up to three per cent”. The remit for the teachers’ pay body announced that the Government was “not seeking a recommendation for pay uplifts . . . for the majority of teachers”. Unsurprisingly, the teaching unions are all consulting their members on the possibility of 22,000 schools being disrupted by strikes after January.

The myth of ministerial impartiality was further exposed by the Financial Times, which revealed that employers were ready to offer rail workers an eight-per-cent rise — only to see it scuppered at the eleventh hour by the Government. Nurses’ leaders have been subjected to similar gamesmanship.

Bringing in soldiers — most of whom earn less than the strikers whom they are expected to stand in for — smacks of cynical manipulation by a morally bankrupt government. Ministers need to display more honesty and get round the negotiating table with the unions.

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