UK - Industrial action at the Grangemouth oil refinery is expected to go ahead after negotiations broke down, although the offer of an independent inquiry funded by the Scottish government is "still on the table".

Talks between INEOS Olefins and Unite the union, brokered by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), stalled yesterday after INEOS said the union had rejected "significant new proposals".

INEOS hoped to avoid the 48-hour strike, scheduled to start on Sunday 27 April, with an offer to take all changes to the existing pension scheme "off the table" and make them the subject of a three-month discussion.

However, that deal was subject to industrial action being called off, and an agreement confirming all future new employees would join a defined contribution (DC) scheme.

Tom Crotty, chief executive of INEOS Olefins, said: "Our latest offer to suspend all proposed changes to the existing pension scheme is just another example of us bending over backwards to bring this conflict to an end."

"The plain fact is that the union seems hell bent on pursuing a strike that will cause chaos and disruption for the people of Scotland and across the UK."

A spokeswoman for Unite confirmed the negotiations had broken down and strike action is currently going ahead as planned. (See earlier IPE story: Pension strike threatens UK fuel supply)

Although the ACAS talks have stalled, a solution put forward by the Scottish government to allow Stewart Ritchie, president of the Faculty of Actuaries, to act as an independent expert to help resolve the dispute, is still "on the table".

Ministers have invited Ritchie to carry out a study to clarify the issues that are in dispute between INEOS and Unite in relation to proposals for the future of the INEOS pension fund, which would also provide more time for the parties to reach a negotiated agreement.

The offer was conveyed to Unite and INEOS by letter from Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, on April 21, however a spokesman for the government told IPE the offer has neither been taken up or rejected by the parties, which means "it is still on the table for them to take up if they wish".

John Swinney, cabinet secretary for finance and sustainable growth, said at the time it was "not acceptable for this dispute to go unresolved and inconvenience Scottish people and business. This is a matter that must be solved by constructive dialogue involving both parties".

Under the terms of the offer, the industrial action would be suspended pending the resumption of "substantive negotiations" aided by Ritchie's report - which would be completed by the end of May at the latest - but as the report is "non-binding", the government warned strike action could be resumed if the dispute remains unresolved.

For the time being, Crotty confirmed, the rejection of the new proposals mean INEOS has "no option but to completely shut down the Grangemouth site to ensure it is safe during the 48 hour strike".

That said, INEOS said the recent discussions have resulted in an agreement between the parties over issues of safety and integrity of the site, and parties have confirmed they will continue to supply services to secure fuel to emergency services.

That said, recent ACAS discussions may have been affected by INEOS' decision to issue defamation proceedings against Unite for claims relating to "serious and completely untrue" allegations suggesting the firm had stripped money from the pension fund, while Unite has tabled an Early Day Motion in the UK House of Commons calling for MPs to support the 1,200 workers' decision to strike.

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