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“No chance at all” industrial action will bring about further pension negotiations

Authors: Helen Jaques 

Publication date:  14 Jun 2012


There is “no chance at all” that the industrial action planned this month will result in reopening of negotiations on reform of the NHS pension scheme the secretary of state for health Andrew Lansley has warned the BMA.

In a letter to the BMA, he says that the Heads of Agreement negotiated in December last year represents the best offer available for individuals in the NHS pension scheme.

The BMA has said that it still hopes the government will agree to “meaningful negotiations to find a fairer way forward.”

“We have always made it clear that we are taking industrial action reluctantly and would far prefer not to take it at all,” said Hamish Meldrum, chairman of BMA council.

On 21 June doctors will take industrial action for the first time in almost 40 years to oppose changes to the NHS pension scheme. On the day of action doctors will cancel all routine appointments and provide only urgent and emergency care.

The BMA has emphasised that patient safety will be paramount during the industrial action. “We are working closely with NHS managers to plan the day of action and to ensure any postponed appointments or operations are rearranged so that patients are given as much notice as possible,” said Meldrum. “A doctor’s first duty is always to his or her patients, and their safety is our top priority.”

However Lansley has warned that the industrial action will inconvenience patients “at best” and “at worst” cause harm. Up to 30 000 operations may have to be cancelled, 58 000 diagnostic tests postponed, and 200 000 outpatient appointments rescheduled, he says. “The adverse impact on patients of postponing and rescheduling these procedures will echo through the NHS long after the strike you are proposing,” he writes.

Although the NHS constitution enshrines the right for healthcare staff to have union representation, he says, it also includes rights for patients with respect to when they should receive care; for example, patients who have their operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons should be offered another binding date within 28 days. “Just as you are exercising your rights under the NHS Constitution, you have a responsibility to ensure that you do not contravene the rights that patients have,” he writes.

The BMA is in dispute with the government over reforms to the NHS pension scheme that will see the scheme move from a final salary scheme to a career average approach, increase the amount members will need to pay in contributions, and increase the retirement age in line with the state pension age.

The BMA argues that the NHS pension scheme underwent major reforms in 2008 that involved an increase in contributions, the introduction of tiered contributions to protect lower paid workers, an increase in pension age for new entrants, and staff taking on responsibility for any further increases needed to cover increases in costs, such as those created by people living longer. Only four years later the government has “torn up this agreement,” and doctors feel a sense of “betrayal” at being asked to accept further changes, Meldrum has said.

In addition the NHS pension scheme provides a surplus of £2bn to the treasury every year, so is not a drain on taxpayers, the union says.

However, Lansley has accused the BMA of misleading its members about some of the arguments over reform of the NHS pension scheme. He points out in his letter that even after the reforms doctors will receive pensions that are more than twice the annual average wage, with doctors who join the NHS pension scheme in three years’ time likely to receive a pension of £60 000 a year if they retire at 68.

Furthermore the fact that the NHS pension scheme currently collects more in contributions than it pays out in pensions does not make it sustainable, Lansley has said. The current gap between contributions made and benefits paid out is set to disappear by 2016 as NHS workforce growth reaches a plateau and a generation of members reach retirement, the Department of Health has said.

Helen Jaques news reporter BMJ Careers

 hjaques@bmj.com

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