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The time for talking is over

The Scottish government has said it is ‘disappointed’ at the BMA’s decision to ballot hospital doctors in Scotland on strike action in protest against the changes to the Scottish NHS pension scheme.

Disappointed, perhaps, but surely not surprised.

On November 30 last year, when healthcare workers the length and breadth of the country took strike action, MSPs debated NHS pension reforms in the Scottish Parliament.

At that time, the Scottish government, represented by finance secretary John Swinney, criticised the manner in which ‘the UK government has pursued a cash grab to reduce the deficit, disguised as short-term pension reforms’.

He sympathised with the public sector workers taking strike action that day, saying: ‘They feel it is necessary to make their voices heard in the great pensions debate, and to register their disapproval of the UK government’s plan to increase significantly their pension contributions.

‘At a time when public sector workers face a pay freeze, significant increases in national insurance contributions, higher VAT and rising inflation and fuel costs, increasing pension contributions is simply the wrong thing to do.’

It is unfortunate, therefore, that soon after this debate the Scottish government introduced regulations to impose the first tranche of increased contributions on NHS staff.

Earlier this year, the Scottish government set up a working group with health union, NHS employer and government representation. The first meeting, introduced by then cabinet secretary for health and well-being Nicola Sturgeon, set out clearly the intention to find an alternative to the pension changes where the Scottish government had devolved authority within the context of the Scottish NHS pension scheme.

Six months later, we still don’t have clarity on the scope of the Scottish government’s ability to negotiate on anything significant other than the increase in contributions. No progress has been made in finding an alternative to the year on year increase in employee contributions, and it appears at the moment that NHS staff in Scotland will face a second increase in April next year.

The Scottish government can do something different if it chooses. NHS employer contributions are among the lowest of all public sector employers in Scotland, and are lower than contributions paid by NHS employers elsewhere in the UK. That illustrates the flexibility that can exist between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

So surely, having raised our expectations of an alternative in Scotland, the Scottish government cannot be surprised by our decision to ballot on strike action.

Ministers have talked up their opposition to the changes, but have failed to deliver on these words. The opposition parties in Scotland have joined the BMA in urging the government to find a way to resolve this dispute.

Scottish Labour said: ‘It would seem that despite lots of rhetoric from the SNP [Scottish National Party], they haven’t acted on their words, and doctors are feeling let down.’

The Liberal Democrats shared the same criticism, saying: ‘The SNP government needs to make a choice about what it wants to do, rather than constantly blaming the Westminster government.’

And the Scottish Conservatives accused the government of ‘raising expectations’.

The time for talking is over. It’s time for the SNP to deliver on its words of support for NHS staff in Scotland.

Alan Robertson is BMA pensions committee chair, and represents the association in talks with the Scottish government on the Scottish NHS pension scheme

Posted in:  Pensions

Tags:  Scotland NHS pensions pensions committee ballots industrial action Labour Party Liberal Democrat Party Conservative Party Scottish National Party Scottish Parliament

Comments

  • Frank Carey

    18 October 2012

    This is an impending disaster for the BMA. At grass roots level there is no stomach for an industrial dispute. I suspect that the ballot will have a low turnout and a negative result. Can we do anything to reverse this process?

  • Wesley Stuart

    18 October 2012

    I am somewhat confused by the BMA position. On one hand it seeks separate negotiation with the Scottish employers over pensions, on the other side it opposes regional pay deals. What has been achieved to correct the imbalance across the UK over discretionary points and excellence awards?

    Many of us felt that the last industrial action simply lost any public sympathy that we may have had over this issue. Will "independent" Scottish action not simply compound this, especially if the stimulus to escalate in Scotland has been the slightly more sympathetic noises from government north of the border?

  • Tom Berry

    18 October 2012

    Earlier this year there was a great strength of feeling at a grass roots level for action. A strong turn out with an unequivocal voice calling for action.

    What is wrong with asking BMA members if their opinion is the same and assessing their strength of feeling with a properly conducted ballot?

  • Crispin Best

    18 October 2012

    If I may answer the above comments, as a member of Scottish Council who fully supports this ballot:

    'This is an impending disaster for the BMA'

    Difficult to know how. We are still angry about the theft of our pensions, have a devolved government, and feel most strongly that it is our membership who have the right to decide whether we take further action. This desire to involve everyone strengthens our position.

    'I suspect that the ballot will have a low turnout and a negative result'

    Perhaps. It will be our members that decide this, and BMA Scotland will then know how they feel. Why is this bad?

    'On one hand it seeks separate negotiation with the Scottish employers over pensions, on the other side it opposes regional pay deals.'

    Aspects of the pension scheme are devolved, and the SNP has said publicly and often they are opposed to what HMG has done. We are asking them to put their money where their mouth is.

    We have a devolved pay system and separate contracts in Scotland and have done for years. Regional pay in England will be an unmitigated disaster.

    'Many of us felt that the last industrial action simply lost any public sympathy'

    And yet the day after the IA in June your patients still came to see you, the NHS carried on running and the world turned. 'Public sympathy' means nothing in a fight with an employer.

  • Dr Sharma

    22 October 2012

    Tha BMA has always stressed that it is fighting for a fair deal. In current circumstances I think the publuic sector has to be prepared take a hit and I think accepting some of the reforms proposals is necessary. Why I would be looking to support the ballot is because it looks to address the outstanding unfairness ie why are NHS employees being asked to contribute more than others in the public sector? If this is the message put across to the public I would expect they would continue their historical support of NHS workers over civil servants, ministers, judges, etc. and appreciate why we still feel the deal is unfair.

  • Dr Adamson

    5 November 2012

    If we as Scottish doctors can influence the Scottish Government, then Westminster may feel obliged to follow. We must resist these pernicious changes to OUR pensions with all the measures we have and not weakly surrendering our rights. We have accepted lower pay (for our working lives) on the proviso that the pension will make up for lower salaries. If our pensions issues cannot be overcome , then we will have to make it up somewhere else; Increased salaries!

  • John Norris MD, London

    6 November 2012

    I strongly oppose the suggestion of strike by Scottish doctors especially at this time when public workers of all types are under financial restraints.

    It will put the profession under disregard in general, will endanger peoples lives by reducing access to medical services and will not encourage dialogue with government

  • Crispin Best

    7 November 2012

    Dr Norris, did you object to the reduction in service on the two extra bank holidays this year, for the Royal Wedding and Queen's Jubilee? Were people's lives endangered then?

    Restraint for public service workers is not equal or fair. We will be paying almost double what a civil servant will pay, and have to work to age 68.

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Pensions in Scotland

Find out:

  • Why we are proposing industrial action
  • What form the action would take
  • What we are aiming to achieve
  • Who can vote

Read the details