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Osborne says that strikes will weaken economy

George Osborne has urged unions to resume negotiations as he warned that today's strike over public sector pensions will not "achieve or change" anything.

The Chancellor said that today's walkout by millions of public sector workers would make Britain's economy weaker.

It is expected to be the largest national strike since 1979. He told BBC Breakfast: "The strike is not going to achieve anything, it's not going to change anything. Britain has to live within its means.

"It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs. So let's get back round the negotiating table, let's get a pension deal that is fair to the public sector, that gives decent pensions for many, many decades to come but which this county can also afford and our taxpayers can afford.

"That is what we should be doing today, not seeing these strikes."

However, speaking from the picket lines outside St Pancras Hospital in London, TUC General Secretary Brenda Barber said public sector pensioners were being plundered to tackle the financial crisis.

"The extra contributions aren't to support the pensions long term, they are simply to tackle the deficit and that's not fair," he told The Daily Telegraph today.

"It's the poorest and the weakest who are too often being asked to pay the price for this crisis and not those who caused it. And there'll be growing public anger until that changes."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, one of those taking action today, also accused ministers of misleading the public.

She said: "The only thing making the economy weaker is the Government's economic strategy. To continue to blame public sector workers isn't going to do anything to resolve the difficulties we're in."

Osborne opened a new front in the Coalition’s escalating conflict with the unions yesterday as he announced pay cuts for millions of state employees.

The Chancellor told nurses, police, teachers and council workers they would suffer effective salary reductions until at least 2015.

State employees also face further reductions in their salaries under plans to abolish national pay deals, Mr Osborne warned.

Union leaders accused the Chancellor of launching a “class war” after he chose to announce the pay reforms just hours before a national strike over pensions by two million public sector staff was due to begin.

Mr Osborne’s statement came as official forecasts predicted 710,000 more public sector workers could lose their jobs in the next six years.

Workers ranging from lollipop ladies to nuclear physicists are expected to join the industrial action over pensions today, which ministers expect to close 90 per cent of state schools and bring “gridlock” to airports.

Last night, Downing Street issued its most aggressive statement on the strikes to date, accusing union leaders of deceiving their members with “utterly misleading” claims about public sector pension reforms.

In what could be the biggest walkout since the 1920s, the strike is expected to hit hospitals, courts, government offices, Jobcentres, and driving tests, among other services.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers and other school staff are walking out, closing more than 20,000 state schools and forcing parents to take days off work or pay for childcare.

The Department for Education (DfE) said it believe that more than half of England's 21,700 state schools (58%) are closed, with a further 13% partially shut.

Passengers arriving at ports and airports have been warned they face delays of 12 hours as Border Agency staff join the action. Civil servants, including military personnel, are expected to fill the roles.

Aegean Airlines, Etihad Airways and Brussels Airlines have cancelled some flights to and from Heathrow, while BAA has asked airlines to fly planes into the airport only half full during the strike.

A number of Labour MPs will not cross picket lines in Westminster, although the GMB union said it wanted them to be in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions to voice their support for the strike.

Unions are fighting plans to force public sector workers to retire later, pay more into their pension pots and accept a pension based on a “career average” rather than their final salary.

In his autumn budget statement, Mr Osborne stepped up the Government’s rhetoric against the strikers. “I would once again ask the unions why they are damaging our economy at a time like this — and putting jobs at risk,” the Chancellor told the Commons. He said: “Call off the strikes tomorrow, come back to the table, complete the negotiations – and let’s agree generous pensions that are affordable to the taxpayer,” he said.

In what was seen as a new assault on public sector pay, Mr Osborne said pay rises would be held at one per cent instead of two per cent after the two-year wage freeze ends in 2013. He admitted it was “tough” but insisted it was “fair to those who work to pay the taxes that will fund it”.

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