THE Government was last night facing the threat of a pre-election strike by more than 1.5 million council workers and civil servants, after resounding votes for industrial action in a bitter row over pensions.

Staff from senior civil servants to street cleaners look set to stage a walk out on Wednesday, March 23, which will cripple public services.

The dispute centres on proposed Government changes to public sector pension schemes, which include raising the retirement age from 60 to 65.

Five unions voted for a 24-hour stoppage to be held on March 23. It will close schools, libraries, jobcentres and council offices, unless the deadlock is broken in the next few days.

Across the region, more than 100,000 public sector workers will strike.

There are roughly 80,000 council workers in the North-East and North Yorkshire, mainly represented by Unison, which has voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action.

This ballot was echoed by council workers in unions Amicus, Ucatt and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

Jim Bush, regional industrial organiser with the TGWU, said: "There will be a virtual shutdown of all local government offices and services.

"Pension is deferred pay. It is earned through working life and there comes a time when you want payback.

"By moving the retirement age, the Government is trying to take away that payback."

About 22,000 civil servants in the region, represented by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, will strike.

This will affect everything from One NorthEast, which includes the old Northumbria Tourist Board, to the Passport Office in Durham City and Rural Payments Agency in Northallerton, North Yorkshire.

Other Government departments with large concerns in the North-East include the Child Support Agency in Washington and the Department for Work and Pensions in North Tyneside.

The FDA, which represents senior managers in the Inland Revenue, Crown Prosecution Service and NHS, is also expecting a vote in favour of a strike on Monday.

Pensions Minister Malcolm Wicks told The Northern Echo last week that the Government had to make the pension scheme change.

He said: "Life expectancy is higher now, so we don't think it is unreasonable to phase in, for younger workers, a move towards 65 as the retirement age.

"That is what already happens in the private sector anyway."

Last ditch talks between union leaders, employers and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott will be held next week to try to avert the action.

Schools could be hit twice, as the National Union of Teachers last night confirmed it will ballot members on similar action, to take place in April.

Unison, TGWU, Amicus and Ucatt said that, nationally, their members voted in favour of strikes by majorities of between 73 per cent and 87 per cent.