Public sector strike: in numbers

Yesterday's strike ended with a war of words between ministers and the unions. Here are some facts.

How important and how wide scale was yesterday's public sector strike? It is hard to tell from listening to politicians and the unions, who each spun a very different narrative about what the TUC claimed was the biggest show of industrial discontent in 30 years. David Cameron dismissed the action as a "damp squib", telling MPs that Britain was hardly disrupted at all, with key services like airports running smoothly. On the other side of it, the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, hailed "huge turnouts". Here is a summary of the numbers.

General turnout

The unions claim that around 2 million people were on strike yesterday, but ministers dispute this, putting the number closer to 1.2 million.

Education

The biggest impact was undoubtedly on schools. Cameron erroneously claimed yesterday that 40 per cent of schools were open (which he was quickly called up on), but in fact, 68 per cent of UK state schools shut entirely, and 14 per cent partially closed. In England, 62 per cent were shut, while the figure in Scotland was as high at 99 per cent.

Health

There has been some serious disagreement flying around on turnout from staff in hospitals, ambulance services and NHS Direct in England. The Department of Health claimed that only 79,000 employees didn't turn up for work. This would constitute 14.5 per cent of the workforce, les than the 20 per cent turnout predicted by the NHS. However, unions accused them of "fiddling the figures", claiming that 400,000 NHS staff went on strike, a number that would have been higher had some staff not gone to work to ensure care for emergency patients.

What we are certain of, is that 6950 operations were cancelled (that's 23 per cent of a total of 30,000 non-urgent NHS operations). 54,000 appointments were cancelled. Ambulance services were affected in several areas of the country, particularly the south-east, with 42 per cent of the London Ambulance Service striking.

Civil service/local government

Some 146,000 civil servants took part in the strike, representing more than a quarter of the civil service. According to the BBC, 850,500 council workers were on strike across the UK. The Local Government Association said that 670,000 employees in England and Wales were not at work, equating to 32 per cent.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.