LONDON (AFP) - At least 95,000 civil servants went on strike in Britain on Wednesday, closing courts and museum galleries in a dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions timed to coincide with the government's annual budget.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union claimed that almost 200,000 of its members joined the one-day walkout, although the government put the figure at 95,000.
Up to 200 people joined a rally outside parliament as Finance Minister George Osborne was delivering his 2013 budget, where he pushed ahead with his austerity programme despite stagnant growth.
Ahead of the strike, designed to kick-off a three-month programme of action, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka warned that the government's policy of cutting public spending was not working.
"Civil and public servants are working harder than ever to provide the services we all rely on but, instead of rewarding them, the government is imposing cuts to their pay, raiding their pensions and trying to rip up their basic working conditions," he said.
Picket lines were set up outside government offices across the country, while job centres and courts were forced to close or reduce services because of a lack of staff, the union said.
The Tate Liverpool and the National Museum of Scotland shut for the day, while other museums including the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum in London had to close galleries.
"We believe the turnout is 78 per cent of our 250,000 members," a PCS official told AFP. "We're getting reports from all over the country that job centres and courts are being shut down." However, the government minister with responsibility for public servants, Mr Francis Maude, said the number of strikers was far lower.
"The latest numbers suggest that fewer than 95,000 civil servants went on strike today," Mr Maude said, adding that the union's claims were "simply untrue".
"I can reassure the public that we are keeping essential services open. Our rigorous contingency plans are in place across all sectors and as a result there has been minimal impact on public services."