LONDON (Reuters) - The government said on Thursday it was hopeful of reaching a deal to reform public sector pensions a day after hundreds of thousands of workers walked out over the issue, but unions called for genuine negotiations.
Ministers involved in the discussions appeared to soften their tone after saying for weeks there was no more money on the table and that a “generous” offer made in early November was final and could be withdrawn.
Talks aimed at averting any further strikes resumed on Thursday after union leaders warned more were possible if the government failed to alter reforms they say will make people work longer and pay more for smaller pension pots.
“I think there is a very realistic possibility of reaching an agreement,” Treasury Minister Danny Alexander told BBC television. He had previously attacked union chiefs for being “hell-bent” on strikes and had appealed directly to workers to accept a settlement.
The government, trying to turn around a debt-laden economy teetering on the brink of recession, says reform is needed as people are living longer and public service pensions are unaffordable. It wants agreement by the end of the year.
Ministers said scheme-specific pension talks involving civil servants, local government and health workers would resume and ministers described meetings over teachers’ pensions on Thursday as “positive and cordial.”
But unions repeated that on key issues such as increased pension contributions and a rise in the retirement age, there had been no movement and no meaningful negotiations since early November.
“We’ve had lots of talks and lots of meetings, but there is a world of difference between meeting and talking and actual negotiations,” said Brian Strutton, national secretary for the GMB, the country’s third largest union involved in the talks.
“As evidence for negotiations you would expect to see things changing,” he told Reuters, adding that to date there had been little progress made.
Strutton said the government wanted union chiefs to agree in principle to an outline deal rather than fully-worked out proposals across all the complex sector-specific schemes.
“We will move heaven and earth to try to achieve that but we have to have people sitting across the table who are able to make some changes to the proposals and not just rearrange how they are delivered.”
Union leaders and the government engaged in a war of words on Wednesday over the impact of the mass walkout billed by unions as the biggest in a generation but derided by Prime Minister David Cameron as a “damp squib.”
Both sides claimed victory, with labour leaders saying up to up to two million teachers, nurses, and civil servants took part, disrupting vital services and closing thousands of schools.
The government disputed the turnout claim saying it was “wrong” and that the true figure was “significantly less.”
It also said “rigorous” contingency planning had mitigated the effects of the 24-hour strike keeping Britain open for business and having only a limited impact on public services.
Editing by Keith Weir