‘We need the TUC to organise a general strike’

A strong picket line outside the HMRC Tax Office on Prince of Wales Road, Norwich
A strong picket line outside the HMRC Tax Office on Prince of Wales Road, Norwich

CIVIL servants called for more action during their national Budget Day strike on Wednesday.

PCS members at a lively picket outside the National Portrait Gallery, near Trafalgar Square spoke to News Line.

Gallery warder Andre Bernal said: ‘We’re striking because the government have capped our pay at one per cent, that’s unfair.

‘MPs get a very big handsome salary and money is being wasted on the High Speed Rail network.

‘There is £160bn of uncollected tax from public corporations like Starbucks.

‘We’re striking for a fair pay increase to pay our bills and our mortgage or rent.

‘It’s horrible what the government is doing.

‘They are out of touch with the common people.

‘We should have more unions out today.

‘We need coordinated action to show how much people care.’

PCS member Elizabeth Carpenter added: ‘I’ve just got this job and I feel the pressures on public spending are not fair.

‘I’m striking to show solidarity to protect our jobs and our livelihoods.

‘We should definitely get rid of this government.

‘I’d back a general strike.’

Among pickets outside parliament, Glenn Stapley, a chef in the House of Lords, said: ‘We’re supporting the one-day strike.

‘They are trying to force a change of contracts with 50 per cent overtime cuts and 50 per cent off in lieu.

‘But you have to take time off within six months. If you don’t, you lose it and you work for nothing.

‘And a lot of us rely on overtime because the basic pay is so poor.

‘It’s time the government woke up and listened.

‘Our union is planning more action. If these issues are not resolved, we and the GMB will be going out which will shut the House of Lords catering department.’

At a 500-strong rally outside parliament, PCS member Steve Goodrich said: ‘We’ve had a pay freeze and pay cuts over the past five years and living costs are going through the roof.

‘We’ve had enough. There needs to be action with all the unions both public and private sector.’

Valuation Office PCS rep Margaret Mills said: ‘If we all stand together we can make a difference.

‘We’re fighting for fair pay, a reasonable level of benefits and maintaining services, and of course jobs.

‘This government are at war on the public services.

‘That has to be answered with strike action by all the unions.

‘We need to bring this government down but I don’t see any hope from the main political parties to replace them.’

Identity and Passports Service PCS rep Jon Bigger told News Line: ‘I’m facing redundancy from the Home Office because of my trade union activities.

‘We’ve had a great picket line today. We had a 90 per cent turnout and they’ve only got a handful of passports.

‘I’m on strike because the government is attacking our terms and conditions, our pay and pensions.

‘There is no justification for more cuts, it’s actually damaging the economy.

‘All the unions should get together and strike.

‘We need more action. It needs to be sustained.’

PCS assistant group secretary at HMRC Gordon Rowntree said: ‘How anybody would believe what Osborne is saying is beyond me.

‘You only have to look around the country to see how many people are either on the dole or in low-paid jobs who can’t afford the basic necessities.

‘A recent survey showed among the top three things stolen from supermarkets were cheese and baby milk.

‘People are being forced to steal to feed their babies.

‘We need a totally different system of government than we have at the moment.

‘We need a general strike, for the TUC not only to implement the resolution at the last TUC conference to consider the feasibilities of a general strike but to go further and organise one.

‘The PCS is taking the lead. It needs other unions and all those affected by the government’s attacks to take action.’

There was a strong picket of PCS strikers outside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Matt Wells, Defra Southern region branch organiser told News Line ‘The process of tearing up our redundancy rights, begun by the last Labour government has been continued by this Coalition government.

‘I think we need more co-ordinated strike action with other unions but we shouldn’t wait for them.’

London Met Unison branch chair Max Watson told the rally: ‘When we fight back together we can win.

‘When we go out together we can win.’

He told News Line: ‘I was reinstated after six weeks of being suspended thanks to the solidarity of all union colleagues across the board.’

• PCS pickets were out in different parts of Norwich for the national action over pay, pensions and terms and conditions.

Sue Valentine, PCS member on the picket line at DWP said: ‘We’re fed up with having our pay cut and our pensions. Why should we work longer for less money?

‘I’ve now found I’ve got to work to the age of 68 years. Last year it was going to be 65 years in six months, and now its 67 in five months.

‘In France they’ve just lowered the retirement age from 62 to 60 years.’

Dave Seagrave, PCS Secretary of Norfolk and Suffolk DWP said: ‘Over the past period we’ve had a 20% pay cut effectively. Since May 2010, 20% of staff have been sacked from the DWP.

‘With regard to the civil service as a whole, 4,000 jobs a month have gone since the election.

‘Pension contributions are hiking up again in April.

‘They are looking to change our terms and conditions as well. They’re shafting us on pay, pensions and T’s and C’s.

‘They are going to change sick pay, annual leave and everything is up for grabs.

‘They’re making it cheaper to sack you. Compensation will be a fraction of what it was.

‘They are taking away all the trade union facilities – use of rooms and internet – and every thing to do with organising ourselves, probably from June.

‘This includes all the facility time for trade union activities.

‘Trade union activities such as Branch meetings, and meetings with managers, etc, will be gone come June and have to be done in our own time.

Trade union duties, are being halved i.e. representing members come June.

‘They’re making it cheaper to sack you. Compensation will be a fraction of what it was.

‘They are coming for us on absolutely everything.

‘The service we provide is being decimated. Crisis loans end in March and it will be up to the local authorities. Norwich say they will only give one crisis loan a year.

‘Something called a “short- term benefit advance” will replace a crisis loan. But if the claimant is in debt then they will not give them a short-term benefit advance as they fear claimants will not be able to pay it back.

‘There are increasing problems with getting payments to clients. Claims are not sorted in a timely way.

‘Sanctions are being imposed on claimants. These start at three months, then six months and then three years!

‘Clients are getting very upset. Increasing numbers of serious incidents, where staff are attacked, are reported from all over East Anglia.

‘It is taking weeks to process claims. The public are suffering and we’re getting abused.

‘Staff can’t get time off and the pressure and stress is building up. Then they are making it easier to sack people with health issues. They have issued new guidance that if your performance dips, you can get two written warnings and can be sacked within six months.

‘We need sustained action. PCS are now organising rolling action involving all sections from DVLA, customs, lifeguards, passports DWP, benefits etc. The next action will be from 1pm on 5th April. There will be three days of action between now and June.

‘The trade unions should be getting together to organise the general strike which was discussed last September at the TUC.’

Outside the dole office, pickets told News Line how hard it is for claimants. Jack Rogers, assistant branch secretary for Norwich Contact Centre and branch treasurer of Norfolk and Suffolk PCS, said: ‘The food banks only give three days’ food, on three instances in a year. This is often tins of stuff or teabags or dried pasta. But without electricity, how can you cook it?

‘They are introducing a benefit cap at a maximum of £350 per household per week. This includes any housing benefit, child benefit, council tax benefit, and jobseeker’s allowance. But this often does not cover people’s rents.

‘We need more jobs. Companies should pay their taxes. They should not be closing HMRC offices.

‘The unions should be fighting, and putting our views across.

‘There will be further action on 5th April and further follow-up action. We’re not going to give up without a fight.

‘Last year, on the Day of Action with other unions, some agreed to the heads of agreement on pensions.

‘We have not had a pay rise for 6 years, yet inflation is going through the roof. We are paying more for pension and now they are attacking our leave. Over 70% of PCS members rely on pay day loans to get through.’

Rogers added: ‘It’s a good turnout. Staff are really hacked off at the way they are being treated at the moment in terms of their conditions being attacked by this government and now the staff have turned round and said enough is enough.

‘We’ve got to defend our jobs because we’re here to service the most vulnerable people in society and if this current government have their way there will be no benefits available. There will be no Benefit Offices for people to talk to.

‘They are trying to push people into online systems. Most of our customers either haven’t got access to a computer or are not computer literate; so it is disadvantaging them even further.

‘With the new sanction regimes, people are being dissuaded from claiming benefit because if they do not produce enough evidence to say they are looking for work they are sanctioned for three weeks, three months, up to three years in some cases.

‘Now they are being told that if they want to make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance they are being pushed to do it online.

‘They are actually being told: “Sorry we don’t want to do it over the telephone, you’ve got to do it online”. They are told they have to go to libraries or friend’s houses and are being discouraged from making claims.

‘Now with the removal of crisis loans vulnerable people can’t actually phone us up and get money for food and fuel. We are having to redirect them to the local authorities or to the food bank. As from next week there will be no such thing as a crisis loan available to jobseekers anymore.’

Bob Kerry, PCS Revenue and Customs Branch, Anglia told News Line: ‘One of the things we are campaigning for is the HMRC Enquiry Centres because there are 281 of them and they are all going to be closed in the next 12 months. This will mean that pensioners and others without access to the Internet will no longer be able to walk into an Enquiry Centre.

‘There are a lot in Norfolk; there’s one in Dereham, Kings Lynn, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, and they’re all going to close so if people don’t have access and don’t know about computers what on earth are they going to do?

‘That’s just one of the things we are campaigning for and obviously civil service pensions and pay, these issues are well known. It’s the Enquiry Centres now that we are really worried about.’