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Sort it and sort it soon;Leading Article;Opinion

THIS IS like the old days. The minister receives delegations from the interested parties. Will he have enough money to buy off trouble? Is it his job to referee disputes? Where are the beer and sandwiches of yesteryear?

New Scotland, old practices. It has been a depressing week as the Minister for Education takes a role in negotiations that are supposed to be between the teacher unions and local authority employers. For years councils have been forced to fund annual pay rises and the Government has steered well clear. For several years, too, the negotiations have produced a settlement without blood on the carpet.

Now we are back in an era of threats, accompanied by leaks that the minister will ride to the rescue and counter-leaks that he has no extra money to offer. The atmosphere remains sour, and Sam Galbraith is as much the target of union resentment as the managers who initiated the failed effort to change conditions of service. Mr Galbraith's committee of inquiry is distrusted, his threat to abolish the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee seen as indication that the Executive will shortly impose changes that the millennium review could not deliver.

Progress will come only if all sides accept that this year's overdue settlement has to be reached before consideration is given to the future. That is what the unions said when they put forward a straight 8 per cent claim. Debate must focus on the realistic sum available - 4 per cent in the mind of teacher leaders, 3.5 per cent if the council negotiators get their way and receive modest help from Mr Galbraith.

Assuming a settlement without an all-out dispute, attention can then turn to Gavin McCrone's committee and the Executive's longer-term intentions. The fact that the unions at one time saw hope in the talks with employers about conditions and that both sides recognise the causes of failure gives some reason for believing that next year need not see unremitting confrontation.

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