The former Labour MP Tony Benn has offered his support to staff at an English language centre in Spain who have been locked in a long and increasingly bitter dispute over pay with the British Council. Mr Benn told EducationGuardian.co.uk today that he thought workers at the British Council Young Learners Centre in Madrid, who have launched a series of strikes and stoppages over pay after receiving below inflation pay rises for nine of the last 10 years, had got a case, and has written to Baroness Helena Kennedy, the council’s chairwoman, asking her to intervene. Staff at the centre have refused to sign a pay agreement with the council since 2001. Originally calling for a 7.8% pay increase – made up of 3.9% to match inflation for 2001 and 3.9% to claw back lost purchasing power – staff have since dropped the claim to 4.5%. They rejected the council’s 3% offer, which it says has been accepted at other language schools, because they say it amounts to only a 2.7% increase in real terms. Workers began a series of one-day strikes and half hour stoppages at the centre in March. Six one-day strikes planned to coincide with the centre’s 20-day summer school this month forced its cancellation, at a cost of euros 700,000. Students’ end of year exams at the centre were cancelled last month. Staff claim the council has sacked nine of the centre’s workers because of the strikes. The British Council in Spain maintains their contracts were not renewed because there was not enough work for them during the summer. Four members of staff are now working in another of the council’s summer schools in the city on temporary four-week contracts. Paul McGinty, a TEFL teacher at the centre for 19 years, said staff had taken a “heavy thump” losing nine of their colleagues and accused the council of rejecting their efforts to compromise to keep the summer school open. “Clearly staff are very worried and anxious,” he said, adding that teachers were wary of clauses inserted in the council’s latest pay offer that would result in salary cuts for new teachers. The centre is calling for an independent inquiry into the dispute The director of British Council Spain, Chris Hickey, said a new offer had been drawn up and presented to the local trade union and their national representatives. “We are hopeful that there is potential here for agreement,” he said.