THAT unexpected “chink of optimism” which emerged at the start of the week and raised hopes of a beginning to the end of Britain’s industrial woes, appears by the end of it to have all but vanished in the wintry gloom.

After more talks yesterday between the various parties took place, the pall of pessimism appeared, for the most part, to be, if anything, getting thicker.

Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, expressed hope about progress “in the coming days” based on a new offer to the rail unions but, after talks yesterday, the RMT’s Mick Lynch was uncharacteristically inscrutable, saying no new offer had been made but parties were working towards a “revised” one.

Following this week’s strikes by teachers and NHS workers, north and south of the Border more industrial action is unhappily on its way.

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Talks yesterday with Whitehall on civil service pay demands were branded a “total farce” by the PCS union. On February 1, a 100,000-strong army of civil servants across 124 Government departments will stage a 24-hour strike.

Meanwhile, no fewer than 14 health unions, representing one million-plus NHS staff in England, announced they wouldn’t be submitting evidence to the pay review body for the next wage round while current industrial disputes remain unresolved. The unions want direct talks with ministers.

The BMA, representing doctors, said it was withdrawing from the process because it was “rigged from the start”. Ministers appoint the members of the pay review body; none is a union representative, leading some to question its independence.

The Government is not budging from the pay review body’s recommended £1,400-a-head salary rise for 2022/23. However, this was put forward before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent inflation northwards.

In Scotland, the SNP administration has proposed a “best and final” offer to NHS staff of a £2,205 pay rise for 2022/23. Some unions have accepted it but others, including the Royal College of Nursing, haven’t.

Downing Street admitted the Government was “properly” considering the options of a one-off payment and backdating the 2023/24 pay deal to this month to end the dispute in England. While Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt have set their faces against it, some senior figures apparently still believe it would provide a quick end to the most troublesome dispute – with NHS unions.

The civil servants’ strike will coincide with the TUC’s “protect the right to strike” day, a response to the Government’s controversial legislation on minimum service levels during industrial action in Scotland, England and Wales.

The irony is that outwith the strikes there isn’t a minimum service level across some services; people having to wait hours for ambulances, spending more hours waiting outside hospitals and yet more hours on trolleys once inside is a stark illustration of the crisis gripping our beloved NHS.

Announcing the new bill in the Commons, Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, said the Government "absolutely believes in the right to strike" but was "duty-bound" to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public.

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The legislation would empower him to impose statutory minimum service levels for a string of public services, including fire, ambulance and rail.

He explained the Government would seek to reach agreement on them in some sectors such as health, education and border security, meaning “we don’t have to use that power in the bill”. The power also includes the right to sack workers who break the minimum service level by going on strike.

Labour, which pledged to repeal the law once in power, branded the legislation "utterly stupid" while the TUC warned it would simply “prolong disputes and poison industrial relations”.

Nicola Sturgeon, who last night over a cosy private dinner with the PM discussed “shared challenges” – not least on industrial unrest – pledged to fight the UK Government’s “anti-trade union” bill “every step of the way,” branding it an “attack on workers’ rights”.

HeraldScotland: Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon met to discuss 'shared challenges'Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon met to discuss 'shared challenges' (Image: Newsquest)

Mr Sunak insists the Government’s approach is “reasonable” and cited examples of other European countries with minimum service requirements backed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). At PMQs, he goaded Sir Keir Starmer, saying: “Normally, he is in favour of more European alignment. Why not now?”

Other European countries do indeed have such minimum service requirements during industrial action but it is a patchwork of varying systems; some embedded in legislation, some not. A number are enforced by “mutual agreement” between ministers, employers and employees.

One expert noted how every country which abided by the ILO’s standards agreed that the “detail of any minimum service level requirement is effectively left to the social partners to decide”.

The Government argues its new bill is compatible with international law but this is strongly contested by the unions; the right to strike is protected by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Battles at Westminster, including in the Lords, where the Government doesn’t have a majority, and inevitable legal challenges by the trade unions will mean months of delays in the bill getting onto the Statute Book.

So, the end of year timescale means it won’t impact on the current wave of industrial action; at least, we hope not.

For some, therefore, the legislation’s primary purpose is blatantly political; a means of clipping union wings, serving a clear political purpose ahead of the 2024 General Election.

One senior Tory MP said the PM “needs to make some enemies and stop trying to keep everybody happy,” adding: “Talks with the unions is one of those areas where he needs to be tougher.”

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Intriguingly, Steve Barclay, England’s Health Secretary, seemed to give the game away. When asked about the prospect of key workers being sacked under the legislation, he declined to answer directly but added: “It’s about the behaviour of the unions more than the individual members.” For unions, read union leaders.

So, as the winter of discontent grinds wearily on we can but hope the sunlight of common sense will break through and the swathe of disputes will be settled as they always have been; around the negotiating table. Politics is, after all, the art of compromise. Supposedly.