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The current industrial action is of course unwelcome news. However, as I am sure the member is aware, universities are autonomous institutions and matters relating to pay, working conditions and pensions are for them to determine. Although it is not for the Government to intervene, it is worth saying that industrial action is in the interests of no one, especially students, and I expect management and unions to make every effort to reach a settlement on these matters.
During the previous round of sustained industrial action, which in that case was by college lecturers, the Government said that it would remain neutral and then in the very next breath called for the union to suspend its industrial action. In this case, will the minister respect the right of workers to take industrial action and withdraw their labour? Will the Government give a commitment to do nothing to undermine the union during the strike action?
Of course the unions are acting within their rights in highlighting what they see as genuine concerns, and they are right to do so. As I said, I urge both sides to get round the negotiating table—I know that employers have offered to do that—in order that we can settle the dispute sooner rather than later. Any Government anywhere would want to minimise the period in which industrial action takes place, and we will continue to monitor the situation.
That was not an answer to my question about the Government respecting the right of unions to act, but simply an acknowledgement of their legal rights, which is a different thing.
Will the Government acknowledge that university lecturers’ pay has plummeted by 20 per cent in real terms at the same time as their workload has increased to the point that they work an average of two days’ overtime a week? Does the Government consider it acceptable for any worker to see their pay plummet by 20 per cent while their workload explodes?
If employees have concerns about their workload, or about any other issue—I know that a number of issues are being discussed as part of the dispute—they have every right to raise those concerns with their employers and act through their union representatives. We hope that both sides can reach an agreement sooner rather than later, so that there is an end to industrial action. As I said, staff have the right to act through their unions.