Support staff poised for pensions action

Teaching assistants, dinner ladies, secretaries and caretakers are expected to strike before Easter in protest at Government plans to force them to work longer for a full pension.

Action is expected to affect futher education colleges and universities as well as schools.

Support staff accused the Government of double standards over its refusal to give them the same pension protection as teachers.

Unison, the largest support staff union, is preparing to ballot members over strike action after admitting it has little hope a deal can be reached with the Government and local authority employers.

The dispute centres on the Government's plans to prevent council staff retiring before 65 on a full pension. Nine unions, including the GMB and TGWU, who also represent support staff, are ready to strike over the issue which affects about 1.5 million council workers.

Although their official retirement age is already 65, support staff can take advantage of a provision known as rule 85, which allows people whose combined age and length of service equals 85 or more to retire earlier on a full pension.

Unions are pressing for that rule to be protected for existing staff. They point to an agreement reached in October which will preserve the retirement age of 60 for teachers and civil servants.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, met union leaders, including Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, this week in an unsuccessful attempt to break the deadlock.

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