UNISON is running another of the biggest ballots in UK industrial history, with 450,000 health worker members having their say on the final offer in the NHS pension scheme.
Our ballot started on 11th April and runs until 27th. Members can cast their vote by post or online. Alongside the ballot paper, they will receive a 40-page booklet explaining the offer, helping them to make an informed decision about their pension and their future. Yes, pensions are complicated and UNISON has said right from the start that members must make the final decision on any offer. Over the next few weeks the union will be pulling out all the stops to ensure a good turnout to give a clear indication of the next steps members want to take.
Whilst the final offer does not meet all our aspirations, it is clear that our action on November 30 and the months of tough talks before and after that day had a significant impact on the pensions proposals. We have secured an improved accrual rate, meaning that the speed at which members build up their pension is improved. For those within 10 years of retirement there is also protection, as well as tapering protection for those up to 13.5 years away from retirement.
We also negotiated a commitment to the ‘Fair Deal’ that gives workers the right to stay in their pension scheme if they are transferred out of the public sector. This is especially important in light of the growing privatisation in the health service because of the new Health and Social Care Act.
The union secured two important tripartite reviews; firstly on extending access to the pension scheme to staff working outside of the NHS but providing healthcare services. These workers are currently not covered by the ‘Fair Deal’ and include people working for social enterprises. A second review will address our concerns about the impact on health workers and patients of people in the health service working longer.
The new scheme would however move members to a Career Average (CARE) scheme – ending the final salary pension scheme in the NHS.
Our health service executive, made up of members from across the country, voted not to send the final offer out with a recommendation to accept or reject. The message to members is that this is the best offer that can be achieved through negotiation. Talks have concluded, and if members want to try to push for more concessions out of government ministers, they will have to be prepared to take part in sustained and significant industrial action. Our message is clear, a vote to reject is a vote for strike action – always the last resort, and a very tough decision especially for members in the health service.
By rejecting, members also run the danger of the government imposing a worse deal – something that has been threatened throughout the negotiations. At the very least, there is a strong risk that ministers will remove the commitment to the ‘Fair Deal’ if members vote to reject – a real blow to the many health workers facing privatisation.
While members cast their votes, the union will be working hard within the tripartite reviews to make sure their concerns are heard loud and clear.
The review on extending access to the NHS pension scheme is more relevant than ever now that the Health and Social Care Act has been passed. The consequences of this, regardless of what government ministers and those who supported the Act may say, will inevitably be more fragmentation and increased privatisation. Pension protection for those affected will be needed.
At the top of our list in the reviews is making sure that employers and government ministers understand the reality of people working longer.
A recent survey by UNISON showed that 54% of people aged 60-65 reported having a longstanding illness, disability or infirmity. Of those who reported such an issue, 59% said that it limits their activities and 28% said that it limits the kind or amount of paid work they could do.
Many jobs in the NHS are physically or mentally demanding – some are both. In this environment, forcing people to work longer will have obvious implications for patient care. Imagine a 68 year-old paramedic rushing a critically ill patient down flights of stairs. It is not going to be possible to simply raise the retirement age, without attempting to assess or deal with the likely problems this will throw up. We need an evidence-based approach to protect patients and health workers.
The NHS cannot afford to lose key staff and it needs to be able to continue to attract high calibre workers and graduates into the NHS. To achieve that it must offer good pay and conditions - this includes access to a decent pension.
Picture credit: Amanda Kendal