There was a point when it looked as if the “winter of discontent” – long predicted by all and sundry – could happen; the one-day strike three weeks ago seemed to augur months of misery as umpteen unions embarked on a season of ill-will towards the government.
Today, however, has seen the big thaw – at least for many of the unions in their negotiations with ministers over public sector pension reform: not for all.
Four different sets of talks have been ongoing.
1] Three unions have been negotiating with the Local Government Association over local government workers’ pensions. An agreement has been reached and will (I’m told) be approved tomorrow by Eric Pickles, communities secretary. It isn’t a full detailed deal, but more a “roadmap” of principles under which talks will continue. Council pension funds are seen as a special case as they are fully funded, unlike central government pension funds.
2] Health. As my colleague Brian Groom reports, some 15 health unions have signed an agreement with the Department of Health. It is a big deal that Unison, the largest, has agreed to take the outline proposals back to its health executive for consideration. One Read more
I wrote a few weeks ago that the number one priority of those at the heart of the coalition, and especially those close to Nick Clegg, was not to have a referendum on Europe. But there are people on his side who think the Lib Dem leader should effectively call the Eurosceptics’ bluff and back a referendum, not just on any new European treaty, but on the UK’s very membership of the union. It is an argument even Clegg used to advance.
Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, made this call a few weeks ago in a provocative column (at least for a europhile) entitled Britain’s eurosceptics are right to call for a referendum. In it he argued:
Barring a euro break-up, Britain and its partners are now set on different courses. At some point the divergence will become unsustainable. The Tory sceptics may be right after all. There is a case for an in-or-out referendum. My guess is the sceptics would be sorely disappointed by the outcome. The voters are realists. Much as Brussels may irritate them, they know there is nothing splendid about isolation.
Now YouGov have done some polling that seems to back up Stephens’ conclusions, especially about the outcome of such a referendum. Read more
The Commons is dead at the moment: with little legislation to debate and no mandatory votes left, many MPs have drifted away to their constituencies (or further afield) for Christmas. But the Lords has plenty to do, and peers are making their presence felt.
Last week, ministers were given a bloody nose when peers voted to nullify plans to cut housing benefit by up to 25 per cent for people who live in council houses with spare rooms. The department for work and pensions says the policy is designed to free up housing stock. A spokesman says:
It’s not fair that people to continue to live in homes that are too large for their needs when in England alone there are around five million people on the social housing waiting list and over a quarter of a million tenants are living in overcrowded conditions.