The minister who 'understands'

21st October 2011 at 01:00
Sympathy over pension fury

In England, frontbench Labour politicians have shied away from supporting teachers taking industrial action over pensions. But the Welsh education minister has said he "understands" their outrage as staff prepare for widespread strikes that would close thousands of schools across both countries.

Leighton Andrews (pictured below), speaking to members of heads' union NAHT Cymru, said he knew feelings were running high over the proposed changes, which would result in higher-earning staff over 60 paying more in pension contributions.

"We find it unfortunate that, at a time of serious stress within our public services, we are seeing this kind of pressure being put on public servants," Mr Andrews said at the union's annual conference in Chepstow this month. "Public-sector pensions are not something to be denigrated by false comparisons to big business. We understand the strength of feeling."

Teachers' pay and conditions are decided at Westminster, and Mr Andrews has no powers to intervene in the matter. The Labour-run Welsh Government has stated it has no desire to seek devolution of powers over pay - a position which is backed by most teaching unions in Wales.

The NAHT is currently balloting its members in England and Wales on whether to take industrial action over the proposed changes. A "yes" vote would be the first time in the union's 114-year history that its members have chosen to strike.

NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby welcomed Mr Andrews' comments, which he said "went much further than any politician in England has been prepared to go, even Labour in England".

"It seems to me this is nothing more than a tax on the teaching profession to pay for mistakes others have made," he added.

In his speech to the NAHT, Mr Andrews also attacked the UK Government's free-schools policy, which Wales has chosen not to adopt.

Although he has previously criticised the policy, Mr Andrews' comments were stronger than usual.

"There is nothing free about these schools - they are a tax on learners, a drain and a diversion from the comprehensive system that this country understands, trusts and cherishes," he said. "During a time of public-sector cuts, enforced by the Tories' dogmatic adherence to a bankrupt political philosophy, it is deeply wrong to be forcing extra capacity into the school system."

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