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Ministers act to head off pensions ballot

Plans by Scotland's two largest teaching unions to hold a strike ballot over Government plans to change the pension age from 60 to 65 were thrown into confusion after senior Westminster ministers made a last-minute offer of fresh talks, Elizabeth Buie writes.

Within hours of announcing their ballots, the leaderships of the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers'

Association were facing the prospect of having to call them off.

There were strong signs that other public sector unions were preparing to draw back from industrial action after John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, announced late on Friday that he was offering a "fresh start" in pensions talks with local government and civil service unions.

By Monday morning, Alan Johnson, Pensions Minister, had written separately to the TUC stating: "We need to take time to get this right". Mr Johnson said that he and the Prime Minister wanted to take a fresh look at the issues.

That left the EIS waiting for further talks at TUC level before a decision could be taken on whether to proceed with a strike ballot which had been endorsed overwhelmingly in indicative, or consultative, ballots.

At the time of going to press, it seemed likely that the National Union of Teachers and the EIS would follow the lead of other public sector unions such as Unison and call off the next stage of their campaign.

Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, said: "Only last week the Government was saying that the pension age was non-negotiable. I am pleased that the Government has responded to union pressure."

However, David Eaglesham, SSTA general secretary, said that nothing had happened to make him change his mind about going ahead with a ballot. Mr Eaglesham was concerned that the offer of fresh talks would prove "a Trojan horse" and described the Government moves as "manoeuvring before the general election".

"This reminds me of George Brown and the Labour Government's steel nationalisation plans in 1967," Mr Eaglesham said. "He stood up and made promises to the Labour rebels and then, once they had gone through the lobby in the appropriate way, he said that the Government had changed its mind.

"I am concerned that the Government is going to say that this is all going to go away and then, after the election, they will come back and say they are terribly sorry, but we misunderstood the situation."

Mr Eaglesham added: "It is far too late at this stage of the process for ministers to be trying to intervene. They should have been trying to do this over a year ago when we first raised our concerns."

Under the consultative ballots both unions held, some 82 per cent of EIS respondents voted yes for a ballot on action and 18 per cent no. In the SSTA ballot, 73 per cent voted yes and 22 per cent voted no.

Leaders of both unions said that they had received overwhelming support for the next stage in the campaign.

Should the strike ballot go ahead and be backed by members, the proposed one-day stoppage would take place on Wednesday, April 26.

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