Minister in the lion's den inflames animal passions

June 7, 2002

Phil Baty reports on Natfhe's angry mood at the union's Torquay conference

It all started rather well. As a junior education minister entering the lion's den of a trade union conference, Ivan Lewis could have expected a hostile reception. After all, members of Natfhe in further education had just spent two days on strike over their pay and the university members had just rejected 50 per cent participation.

But with good grace and humour, Mr Lewis handled the arrival of a demonstrator wearing a monkey suit (slogan: if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys). He even politely acknowledged the 23 activists at the back wearing T-shirts spelling out their demand for parity with schoolteachers. And he patiently weathered some relatively restrained heckling.

Mr Lewis had given up celebrating his wedding anniversary to bring a message that the government was listening. Perhaps mindful of the appalling reception received by higher education minister Margaret Hodge at the mild-mannered Association of University Teachers last month, he said: "I fully understand your serious concerns relating to pay." He spoke of the government's responsibility to invest in education. He insisted that the government valued lecturers' contribution and he even suggested that there might be good news in the comprehensive spending review.

Then he dropped the bombshell that transformed the bun fight into a bear bait. "There can be no justification for the strike action that took place last week," he said.

Perhaps unaware that it had been the employers who had called off round-table talks to prevent the strike, Mr Lewis continued: "Your action can only damage students. You should get round the table with employers and negotiate a resolution to a dispute which is frankly leading you nowhere."

The rebuke was met with howls of indignation and a walk out by 70 per cent of the audience. Mr Lewis blundered on with a familiar speech rehearsing the government's commitment to widening access, upskilling the workforce and driving the economy through education. When his speech tailed off, Natfhe's president, Tina Downes, rose and looked down at him. "A lot of things you said were unacceptable," she told him, earning herself a standing ovation.

"The employers cancelled the talks, not us. I think you were set up by your colleagues in the department," she said, "because they knew that Natfhe members were getting angrier and angrier."

Caught up in the emotional tide, general secretary Paul Mackney stood up. He launched into a blistering attack, with Mr Lewis still standing at the podium, hopelessly isolated and trying hard not to look chastened.

"We gave you a friendly reception... But whoever wrote your speech knew what those provocative remarks would do... I have been called a brown-noser and have come to conference over the years saying that ministers are trying to do their best, trying to find the money... I did not expect to be this angry... Don't come here and tell us to be grown up. The case is that further education is in crisis. Take it away with you."

In the news, page 13

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