Thursday, January 05, 2012

UNITE reject the NHS pension offer (and wait for UNISON before deciding what to do next)

Today brings the news that UNITE's equivalent of our Health Service Group Executive (SGE) has unanimously rejected the Heads of Agreement for the proposed changes to the NHS Pension Scheme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16431284).

Mind you, continuing a theme from earlier today about the poor quality of BBC reporting on pensions, the Beeb manage to misrepresent the Government's "final offer" as including protection from contribution increases for all those within ten years of retirement(!)

Still, the report from the UNITE Committee is accurate and Len McClusky is quoted as saying of the decision;

"Our NHS executive unanimously rejects the government's pernicious attempts to make hard working and dedicated NHS staff pay more, work longer and get less when they retire. Unite believes it is important to continue a campaign to maintain a fair and equitable system of public sector pensions and calls on ministers to enter into real, genuine and meaningful negotiations on the future of NHS pensions and public sector pensions." (http://www.unitetheunion.org/news__events/latest_news/unite_unanimously_rejects_nhs.aspx)

The eyes of health workers will now turn to next Tuesday's meeting of our Health SGE, who will need to make a judgement in the interests of UNISON members (and of the future strength of our organisation).

Since we have been told that the present offer "is the best that can be achieved by negotiation" and that this is about "damage limitation" the SGE face a hard choice, as were we to adopt the same position as UNITE we would necessarily continue to lead a dispute which would require further industrial action. This would certainly not be an easy choice. I think, however, that it would be the right choice.

I know there are those in the movement who are, sotto voce, talking down the success and effectiveness of the 30 November strike and, particularly in the North, who are emphasising the disappointing geographical gradient which sees support for strike action weaken generally as one travels South.

But should we be shocked that we faced difficulties in mobilising members for the first national action in a generation? Should we accept that 30 November is a high water mark, the best we can hope to achieve and the limit of our aspirations? I would suggest that the Ambulance sector ballot result is one indication otherwise.

It seems to me that the question confronting the Health SGE is not whether a manifestly poor offer is really acceptable, but whether we believe we have the power to improve it.

That said, I don't rule out the possibility that there may be some "talking up" of the offer alongside the talking down of our action (though I sincerely hope not).

In this connection, I hope that SGE members will query that part of our commentary on the Agreement (about which I blogged before - http://www.jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2011/12/nhs-pensions-comments-on-commentary.html?m=1) which refers to the proposed "accrual rate of 1/54th for service after 2015" and goes on to say that "this is around 11% better than the 1/60th accrual rate in the reference scheme and the current 2008 section. Comparison with the 1995 section is more difficult because you have to take part of your benefit as a lump sum at retirement but a 1/54th is around 18% better than the value of an 1/80th pension with a 3/80 th lump sum."

This really is unacceptable as it fails to compare like with like, since the accrual rate in a final salary scheme is multiplied by the known quantity of a final salary, whereas in a career average scheme it is multiplied by a series of annual salaries (each increased according to the revaluation rate). The presentation of that part of our commentary is, at the very least, misleading.

UNISON did such good work to train pension contacts and champions that it is very saddening to see us issuing such misleading comments - particularly when they could have the consequence of making a poor offer seem better than it is.

In the end, for all the rhetoric, UNITE made half a decision today, and it is noteworthy that they will meet again, after the UNISON Health SGE has taken the decision that will matter most of all, in order to take the other half of the decision ("what to do next").

I hope that the Health SGE has confidence in our ability to mobilise members for further effective action and therefore arrive at a similar decision to our comrades in UNITE. This is a decision for the SGE of course, which they are best placed to make.

I hope very much, however, that no part of UNISON's decision is influenced by misguided attempts to convince ourselves and our members that we have somehow conjured a silk purse from the sow's ear of the Government's offer on pensions to our health service members.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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