In a strongly worded letter to the chair of the BMA Council, health secretary Andrew Lansley has made it clear that he is not minded to improve the pensions offer currently on the table.
The letter was swiftly despatched, following the results of a BMA survey, published earlier this week. This showed that two thirds of respondents would be willing to go on strike in protest at the proposed changes to their pension benefits, due to come on stream this April.
The changes would mean higher contributions, a later retirement age in tandem with the rest of the population, and the scrapping of the final salary pension scheme.
The survey findings prompted BMA Council chair, Dr Hamish Meldrum, to request a meeting with the health secretary and to urge a government rethink.
But in his response, Mr Lansley said that while he was prepared to meet, he was not prepared to renegotiate the government’s latest offer, which he described as an “excellent deal,” which maintained the NHS pensions scheme as among the best available anywhere.
“Of course, we can meet, and there are issues we can discuss when we meet, but you know that I will not reopen the Heads of Agreement, which you have signed,” wrote Mr Lansley.
The Heads of Agreement was signed by all the relevant trade unions before Christmas, following the government’s latest offer.
Mr Lansley pointed out that under the new proposals, doctors who expect to retire within the next 10 years would still get exactly the same pension they expected “and when they expect it,” and that the 6.54% contribution that a consultant earning £100,000 + a year would be expected to make in future would be similar, with tax relief, to that of a nurse earning £30,000 (6.4%).
He reiterated that there was no justification for industrial action, and that this could harm patients. And he hinted that this might make negotiations on other matters difficult in the future.
“No concessions on the issues you raised in your letter, or any other issues, will be won through the threat or use of industrial action,” he wrote.
The public would not back doctors on a rejection of the deal, he suggested. “Nor will the public accept nor understand how you can sign up to an excellent deal and walk away from it on the strength of an informal survey to which less than 36% of all your members responded.”
In the continuing letters war, Dr Meldrum responded, saying that he was concerned “by both the unconstructive tone of your reply and by the inaccurate portrayal of the situation.”
He pointed out that the BMA did not sign up to the government’s proposed changes to the NHS pension scheme, but merely agreed to consult its members on the latest offer.
“Doctors have now said, very clearly, that they do not accept the proposed changes. They have also said that, for the first time in a generation, they would be prepared to take industrial action. This is something that they find extremely hard to contemplate and reflects the strength of feeling in the profession,” he wrote.
Doctors did not want bigger pensions, he said. But they were angry about having to work longer, and stump up more for less, in the long term. Along with other NHS staff who signed up to the pension changes in 2008, they felt “let down,” he said.
“I really urge you to work with the BMA and the other health sector unions to agree a fairer way forward and I am happy to take up your offer of a meeting to discuss these issues,” he concluded.
Read both letters here.