LONDON An outline agreement has been reached covering health workers' pensions, union sources said on Monday, in a sign a broader breakthrough could be imminent in a bitter dispute with the government over public sector pension reform.
The heated row drew hundreds of thousands of workers out on strike last month in the biggest national walkout for decades and unions have threatened more stoppages next year.
A union source said an agreement in principle had been hammered out with government officials covering at least 450,000 workers in the health sector with talks continuing across three others: teaching, local government, and the civil service.
Nonetheless, despite the overall positive tone, a split emerged late on Monday among unions representing civil servants with the biggest rejecting the new government offer outright and calling for more strikes.
"A 'heads of agreement' has indeed been reached (on health)...similarly we're expecting the same in local government and hopefully some progress in the civil service scheme as well, but teacher talks are ongoing," Brian Strutton, national secretary for the GMB, the third largest union involved in the talks, told Reuters.
Strutton said the deal for health workers was encouraging but that it still needed to be approved by union executives at meetings in the new year.
"It's a major step forward in negotiations because a large part of the parameters have been agreed in principle subject to final application by members...but no one should underestimate the difficulties of finishing off the detail and then getting it approved by health workers out there," he said.
"However, it takes us forward in negotiations and that means government won't impose any change while they continue talking and we won't call any further industrial action (in terms of health)," Strutton added.
He said lifting the threat of industrial action may extend to other unions as well if deals are struck in other sectors.
The head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an umbrella group that coordinated the walkout last month, said after hours of talks progress had been made but that the final decision would lie with union members.
TUC: NO DEAL YET
"I want to emphasise very strongly, to be crystal clear, at this stage no agreements have been reached," TUC chief Brendan Barber told reporters after a meeting with the leaders of major unions.
"In all of these areas these points of potential agreement have to be taken back to union executives ... to decide whether they are regarded as an acceptable basis to move forward," he added.
The most significant breakthrough on Monday came with the agreement by Unison, the biggest public-sector union involved in the row, reaching a deal on the National Health Service pension scheme.
"On some issues, such as contribution rates for the low-paid next year, and for people close to retirement, we have made progress ... there has been movement, yes," said Christina McAnea, Unison's head of health said in response to the government's offer.
"We've gone through the gateway the government asked us to do by the end of the year, to reach heads of agreement on the main items, and that carries the detail negotiations through into next year," another union source close to the talks said.
"There's still a bit to be done it's not over yet."
The government said it remained hopeful of a deal on pensions involving all of the schemes by the end of the year.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, will make a statement on progress in the negotiations to parliament on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Kenneth Barry)