Public sector strike hits services and schools

Marchers in central London The strike, over proposed changes to public sector pensions, is expected to be the biggest in years

About half of all state schools in England and Wales are being affected by a strike by UK public sector workers.

Picket lines have been set up as three teaching unions join Public and Commercial Services union members such as jobcentre and border control staff to protest at planned pension changes.

A march and rally is also taking place in central London.

The government says the plans are "fair to taxpayers" and other trade unions are continuing with negotiations.

Along with the opposition, it has condemned the strike action, although Labour leader Ed Miliband has accused ministers of mishandling negotiations with the unions.

The action by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the University and College Union (UCU) affects England and Wales.

The unions say the proposals would mean more work and contributions for a reduced pension.

About 12,000 schools are being affected, although the actual total may turn out to be higher.

Information from about 75% of England's 21,500 state schools showed a third would close, a third would remain open, and a third would be partially closed. In Wales, according to local authority figures, more than 1,000 out of 1,800 schools are either closed or partially closed.

In London, where police leave has been cancelled, union leaders and activists gathered at Lincoln's Inn Fields for the march to Westminster.

Airport delays

The impact of the co-ordinated industrial action began to be felt at ports and airports on Wednesday evening, when some UK Border Agency staff walked out from 1800 BST.

Travellers were warned to expect delays on arrival at UK ports and airports - although most are not currently reporting disruption.

At the scene

At an entrance to Lincoln's Inn Fields in central London, piles of "all strike together" placards are mounting up and hand-sewn union banners are being hung from railings.

NUT stewards are getting kitted out in orange vests ahead of a march and rally. Among them is Sasha Elliott, a 33-year-old teacher at Richard Cobden primary school in Camden, who feels she has no other option but to strike.

She said she has explained to her year six pupils about the background to strikes and trade unions but has had more conversations with their parents, who are broadly supportive.

This week she has taken her class out on three day trips including a 5km nature walk - something she can't imagine doing if she is still working at 68.

As we talk, a group of four young men, head to toe in black and wearing face masks, enter the park. Within moments, police have separated them and are searching their pockets and rucksacks.

As flights began to arrive, Heathrow airport said passengers were "generally" not experiencing excessive delays at border control. Gatwick said there were "very slight delays" while Luton reported disruption had been kept to an "absolute minimum" and Stansted said passengers are not seeing delays.

People leaving the UK are not affected because departing passengers come into contact with security staff employed by the airports, who will not be taking industrial action.

The walkouts by the PCS, which has around 260,000 members including coastguards, police support workers, court staff and driving test examiners, will be staged across the UK.

The government said that, in the Civil Service, "early signs are that less than half of the PCS Union's own members have decided to take part in today's strikes".

It added that the "vast majority" of courts, job centres, and HM Revenue and Customs call centres would remain open as usual.

Speaking on BBC One's Breakfast, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said: "People are going to be scratching their heads, wondering why teachers and some civil servants are going on strike while discussions are still going.

"It's perfectly reasonable for people to expect to work a bit longer before they start drawing the pension, which will still be among the very best..."

Francis Maude: "It's absolutely unjustifiable"

Writing on Twitter, Mr Miliband said: "These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are going on. People have been let down by both sides - the Govt has acted recklessly".

But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said his members were left with no choice but to take action as the government was not prepared to "compromise on any of the central issues of the strike".

"While they are talking, they are not negotiating," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Meanwhile, Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said: "We realise that it's very disruptive for parents and we do regret that. We had hoped to reach a settlement before the industrial action, but the government isn't serious about talks."

And ATL general secretary Mary Bousted told BBC Breakfast: "We don't want to be on strike, and we wouldn't be on strike if the government had been prepared to do what they say they're going to do now, and that's negotiate."

Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute of Directors told the BBC he believes the strikes have the potential to damage the UK economy.

He said: "We want to be seen as the best country for people to invest in - these sort of messages send something very different.

LATEST ON LIKELY DISRUPTION

  • Schools: Based on information about 75% of schools in England, one third to close, one third to open as normal and one third to be "partially affected". In Wales, more than 1,000 out of 1,800 closed or partially closed
  • Job centres and courts: Will remain open "wherever possible"
  • Benefits: Little disruption expected as most claims are automated
  • Customs/immigration: Trained managers to be redeployed to ensure full checks are conducted and borders remain secure
  • Civil service: One in five workers will strike. Staff to be allowed to bring their children into work
  • Parliament: Operating as normal with full access maintained

Sources: No 10 spokesman/Parliament spokesman/Welsh local authorities

"The private sector has had to wake up to the tough realities of pension provision in a rapidly changing world, and the public sector must do the same."

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said that people on both sides of the negotiations, as well as Labour Party figures with good union connections, "continue to believe that a deal is the only way that will see the resolution of this - and that a deal is possible".

Some parents working in Whitehall, including MPs, will be able to take their children to work on Thursday, Downing Street said.

No 10 later said that Prime Minister David Cameron's children would not be with him because their school is open. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's children will not be at school, but it is not known how they will be spending the day.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber will address a rally in Exeter, saying: "The burden of deficit reduction is being piled unfairly onto millions of low and medium-paid public sector workers who did nothing to cause the crash.

"Their pay has already been frozen for two years, even though inflation is higher than it has been for over a decade."

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has called for legislation to impose a minimum threshold on strike ballots before industrial action can be taken.

Are you taking part in the strikes? Do you support or oppose the strikes? How are the strikes affecting you? Send us your comments and experiences.

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