WORKERS at the North-East regional offices of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs threatened the government with strike action this week.

Staff at Defra's Northallerton offices are embroiled in a pay wrangle with Whitehall chiefs over what trade unions claim are double standards in wages.

Members of the Public and Commercial Services union will vote next week on the proposed industrial action, which would start with a one-day strike on August 20.

But the union has promised that the strikes would not affect any of the office's operations tackling foot-and-mouth disease. Mr Michael McDine, a member of the North-East branch of the union's executive committee and a Defra worker at the Northallerton site, said: "It is unfortunate that the two have coincided.

"This is a national issue. If we had wanted to have maximum impact we probably would have taken action months ago. We have tried to make sure that it will have as little effect as possible on the control of foot-and-mouth."

The row erupted after the government reshuffle earlier this year that merged the Department of the Environment, formerly part of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, with the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods to form Defra.

Former MAFF workers in Northallerton were shocked to learn that their new office colleagues from the Department of the Environment were earning an average of an extra £2,000 a year for doing exactly the same job.

Mr McDine said: "The average salary for my grade of administration officer is £12,100 and in the Department of the Environment it is close to £15,000 a year. In fact, the average wage for an administration officer in MAFF is less than that of an administration assistant in DETR. We say we should be paid the same wage for doing the same job."

The union is balloting members on industrial action after a series of talks with Whitehall broke down. "We have been through all the negotiation rounds," said Mr McDine.

A spokesman for Defra in London denied that the two parties had reached an impasse and said talks to resolve the issue were ongoing.