Tuesday, 5 July 2011

An Attack on Doctor's Pensions

Public sector pensions have been in the news quite a fair amount recently, and there are plenty of commentators around who can explain better than me why the changes are deeply unfair to workers, and so I shan't talk about pensions as a whole. Instead, I want to write about something that I, as a medical student, have a personal future interest in, the NHS pension scheme.

The BMA remains highly critical of both NHS reforms and of proposed pension reform.

It may seem a pretty dull subject, so I shall try to keep this short and to the point, and in those interests here are a few quick facts about the current scheme.

  • It was renegotiated as recently as 2008, with the introduction of tiered contributions to ensure fairness for the lowest paid and an increase in the retirement age for new entrants to 65.
  • Employers contributions (i.e. the taxpayers) have been capped.
  • The scheme is due to be £10bn in surplus by 2015, providing the Treasury with £2bn a year.

Such a scheme would seem ideal for a government looking to cut costs, not only are costs not spiralling out of control, they're recieving money from the surplus! In light of this, it seems even more bizarre that the government, fronted on the issue by Danny Alexander, is issuing threats to public sector workers that they must accept new settlements or lose out even further.

It is outrageous that the government is returning to an issue that was already negotiated in good faith 3 years ago, let alone that it refuses to talk to the British Medical Association about changes, and instead will only talk to them about the 'implementation of the changes'. They are not negotiating, they are simply asking whether the BMA wouldn't mind helping them implement plans to charge them more. As the BMA Head of Pensions put it in a recently released blog

"Given that we completely reject the need to increase contributions to the NHS Pension Scheme at a time when it is in surplus, why would we assist in designing the method to implement the hike? It’s a bit like the condemned man being asked to help tie the hangman’s noose."

In response, the BMA, which has been described as the most effective trade union in the press because of its position of always engaging critically on issues it finds important, has said that it will take any necessary measures to protect doctors pensions. This will no doubt lead to calls from the right that doctors themselves are issuing ultimatums, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of the BMA knows that this is not their style, they always seek to have a dialogue. The BMA's position however, is that it will not be trampled over, as summed up well by the Chairman of Council, Hamish Meldrum:

"Whilst we will be reasonable, whilst we will not rush to precipitate action, whilst we will not put patients’ lives at risk, do not, in any way, or for one single moment, mistake this responsible attitude as a reason to underestimate our strength of feeling, our resolve and our determination to seek fairness for those we represent."

All doctors want is fairness, and at the very least to be allowed to negotiate with the government. All that is impossible when they are receiving thinly veiled attacks from the Treasury. As expressed by Andrew Dearden at the recent Annual Representative Meeting of the BMA, "we will not accept this ideological attack on our pensions and that if you don’t want a fight, stop throwing punches."

Indeed, the meeting passed a motion by 87% to ballot on industrial action, which will be the first such action since 1975 should it go ahead. The BMA will hesitate to use the action as they seek to put patients interests first, and industrial action will more likely involve 'work to rule' or similar action rather than all out strike, but it does show how seriously they take this threat.

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