GMB says “really strong resistance” remains among health service workers to pension cuts. Pic: GMB members in Sheffield during N30 strike

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A number of unions are warning of a further round of strike action on public sector pensions as disatisfaction grows with the prospect of a sharp increase in pension contributions and people being forced to work longer before they can retire.

One of the most senior union negotiators on public sector pensions says there remains “strong resistance” to the government’s current proposals for a new pension scheme covering the NHS – and that members might reject any final proposals and opt for further industrial action.

GMB national secretary, Brian Strutton also told UnionNews any settlement on the future of pensions for local government workers remains a long way off.

He said: “Of all the different schemes, we’re finding there is really, really strong resistance to the government’s proposals among our membership in the NHS.”

Negotiators in all unions involved believe the biggest single obstacle to any settlement is the planned increase in contributions.

Currently, NHS staff pay an average of 6.5% of their salary into the scheme. That will rise to 9.8% under the government’s proposals. Coming on top of several years of pay freezes, officials warn of a mass opt-out from the scheme if people are forced to pay the levels being demanded by the government. They say that would undermine the cash-flow and long-term viability of the fund.

The NHS scheme has more than 2.5 million members and is described by employers as “the largest single occupational pension scheme in Europe”.  According to the most recent figures (covering 2009/10) the average annual payout was £7,234.

National Audit Office statistics say – following changes to the scheme in 2008 – employee contributions rose to £2.25 billion in 2008-2009. The NAO projects that contributions to the scheme will exceed outgoing payments in 2015/2016.

The timing of any re-think by a key participant in talks with the government is significant.

It comes less than a fortnight before GMB’s executive meets to discuss the status of talks on the pension cuts. A number of union branches want whatever proposal is on the table to be put to a ballot of members.

Some are “disappointed that members will still be expected to work longer, pay more, and receive less”.

GMB was one of the principal signatories to the 19th December Heads of Agreement framework which laid out the main principles for a career-average NHS pension scheme to replace the current arrangements. The document also provides for an increase in the retirement age to 68, switches the inflation index from RPI to CPI and sets out higher employee contribution rates.

Thousands of GMB members joined the 30th November strike against pension cuts

GMB has some 60,000 members across the NHS, including paramedics, ambulance staff, domestic, maintenance and support workers. Those numbers were boosted in the lead-up to the national strike over pensions on 30th November 2011.

When it and other unions endorsed the Heads of Agreement, negotiators believed it would be possible to reach a draft agreement covering the health service scheme by the end of January. That deadline has passed and unions are still demanding more details from NHS officials about arrangements for increased employee contributions, some of which were due to be deferred until 2014 and 2015.

These details may not now be available before the middle of the year.

While neither side expects any central talks on pensions, detailed negotiations are continuing on some of the schemes, such as for local government workers in England and Wales.  However, UnionNews understands no detailed talks have yet taken place for the local government scheme in Scotland, nor for teachers north of the border.

Sources say talks took place today (Thursday) on the civil service scheme. PCS and Unite officials say they remain opposed to the government’s formula that workers must “pay more, work longer and get less”.

In education, the NASUWT and NUT have rejected ministers’ current proposals. Teachers leaders say the government’s proposed increase in the retirement age to 68 years old has proved to be a central issue for members.

Earlier this week, NUT announced an internal survey had found 93% of members agreed the union was right not to sign the Heads of Agreement, while the National Executive of the UCU has already voted for a second day of strike action on pensions on 1st March. The EIS union in Scotland has called for further talks among unions on further coordinated action on pensions.

Treasury officials insist they expect negotiations to be concluded by 20th February. Union negotiators believe the deadline is completely unrealistic.

Says the GMB’s Brian Strutton: “We want to move to formal consultation with our members as soon as possible. But we cannot force them down a particular path.”

The GMB’s Central Executive Council is due to meet on 14th February to consider the outcome of the talks.


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