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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