Rishi Sunak has confirmed that many military personnel are to be drafted in to prevent disruption during industrial action over Christmas, in a move which has been condemned by union bosses as “strike-breaking”.
In an indication that ministers are losing hope of averting a wave of stoppages over the festive season, Mr Sunak said he would not give in to union demands on pay and was focusing on minimising disruption to day-to-day life.
The prime minister was speaking as the Ministry of Defence confirmed that troops have been training at Heathrow and Gatwick since the start of this week in preparation to man passport booths when Border Force officials walk out.
But the move has caused discontent among troops, with former head of the army General Lord Dannatt saying it was “unreasonable” to ask soldiers to cancel their Christmas to allay the impact of strikes.
Lord Dannatt said it was understandable that the military are called in to help emergency services during natural disasters, but added: “In the context of industrial disputes that many people think the government could resolve, but for political purposes chooses not to, the military becomes a substitute for striking labour. That starts to become rather controversial.”
The general secretary of the PCS public service union, Mark Serwokta, this week wrote to the head of the armed forces Admiral Sir Tony Radakin warning it would be an “outrage” if government ministers sent the military in to do striking workers’ jobs.
Royal Mail workers downed postbags today as part of a series of one-day stoppages expected to disrupt deliveries of Christmas mail.
Around 2,000 military personnel are understood to be preparing for deployment during disputes over the coming weeks, with possible roles including ambulance driving and firefighting.
Mr Sunak today visited the RAF Coningsby base in Lincolnshire to thank personnel for their service in the coming weeks.
He said that the government had acted “fairly and reasonably” in accepting the recommendations of independent pay review bodies on public sector salary increases this year.
“What I’m not going to do is ask ordinary families up and down the country to pay an extra £1,000 a year to meet the demands of the union bosses. That wouldn’t be right and it wouldn’t be fair.
“What I am going to do is ensure that I minimise the disruption to people’s lives and make sure that we protect lives. And that’s what we’re working on right now with resilient resilience and contingency plans, but also looking at tough new laws which will help us do that.
“I’ve had the opportunity to say thank you to some of our armed forces personnel because many of them are going to miss Christmas to help us deal with the disruption from strikes, whether that’s manning border posts or driving ambulances.
“We all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.”
Mr Sunak refused to reveal whether he is planning to extend laws banning strike action by the armed forces, police and prison officers to cover other essential services such as healthcare staff and ambulance workers.