Doctors to vote on industrial action for first time in 40 years over pensions dispute
Battle: Britain's doctors will be balloted on industrial action for the first time in decades as the dispute over the Government's public sector reforms escalates (file picture)
Britain’s doctors are to be balloted over industrial action for the first time in nearly 40 years as the bitter dispute over the Government’s public sector reforms escalates.
The British Medical Association’s governing council last night decided doctors and medical students should vote on whether to take action in the row over pensions – the first such ballot since 1975.
The doctors’ union has ruled out a strike because of the potential impact on patients.
But any action will cause disruption to NHS services. Doctors could decide to withdraw all non-emergency care, take all of their contracted breaks, or simply ‘work without enthusiasm’.
Doctors are unhappy with planned changes
that would see younger doctors paying more than 200,000 extra over
their lifetime in pension contributions and working eight years longer,
until the age of 68.
BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said yesterday: ‘We’ve pursued every avenue we could to bring the Government back to meaningful talks. We therefore have no other option but to ballot on industrial action.’
A Department of Health spokesman added: ‘There is no justification for industrial action. It is fair that higher earners pay greater contributions relative to those on lower incomes.’
'Doctors are not asking for special treatment – quite the opposite. Just four years ago, NHS staff agreed to major reform of the NHS pension scheme to make it fair, affordable and sustainable. Now the Government wants to go back on that deal.
'The NHS pension scheme is in a strong financial position and the economic downturn does not affect that as staff have already accepted responsibility for covering any future cost increases.
'The decision to ballot for the first time in 40 years has not been taken lightly. Doctors and medical students have overwhelmingly rejected the current offer, and we've pursued every avenue we possibly could to bring the Government back to meaningful talks. With no signs of movement, we simply cannot ignore this strength of feeling by medical staff.
'Taking industrial action remains a last resort and we urge the Government to work with us – and the other health unions – to find a fairer way forward.
Dramatic move: The BMA's governing council decided doctors and medical students should vote on whether to take action over pension changes
'Should industrial action be necessary, the priority would be to limit disruption and prevent harm to patients. That is why we have completely ruled out strike action and are committed to reviewing the risks for patients at every stage.
'With increases in tuition fees, junior doctors will be starting their working lives with debts of up to 70,000. Now they are being told they must pay 200,000 more in pension contributions and work until they are at least 68.
'The Government's action may also cause a big tranche of experienced doctors to leave the NHS – more than a third of doctors aged 50 and over say they intend to retire early if the changes go ahead.'
The timing of the ballot will now be decided along with what sort of action will take place if doctors vote 'yes'.
More than 80 per cent of the 46,000 members who responded to a BMA survey in January said the Government's offer should be rejected, and nearly two thirds said they were willing to take industrial action.
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA's consultants committee, told BBC TV that the first principle was that patients should not be harmed.
He said: 'Any industrial action that we do take will be designed to minimise the harm and impact upon patients. Our fight is with the Government, not the patients.'
'Last resort': BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said that no option remained but to ballot
He said he expected members to show their anger through the vote, and accused the Government of breaking a deal signed three years ago.
Asked if there might be a work to rule, he said: 'The main thing is the principle of no harm to patients. As doctors our professional duty is to put the care of patients as our first concern.'
Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers organisation, said: 'I understand the anxiety of staff about changes to pensions, but this announcement will be disconcerting for patients and disappointing to the majority staff who recognise the importance of the essential services they provide.
'The Government will soon release full, final details of the pension proposals and it is essential that staff have time to consider the proposals.
'This is a critical time for staff and it is very important that they wait until the Government has released full, final details of the pension proposal before voting.
'It is vital that they make fully-informed decisions and we ask that all parties concentrate on helping staff understand the changes.
'Employers will do they all they can to ensure staff have access to balanced, accurate information and, in the event of industrial action, will urge trade unions not to take action that damages patient care.'
The BMA move is the second blow in as many days to Government hopes of resolving the long running row over its public sector pension reforms.
The executive of UCAC – which represents thousands of teachers, headteachers and lecturers in Wales – warned yesterday that the option of further strikes remained open.
The union leaders said they wanted to negotiate further with the Government, and will step up the campaign alongside other unions to press for improvements to the offer.
Headache: Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said he was disappointed with the decision to take a vote
General secretary Elaine Edwards said: 'We consulted with members before coming to a decision, and the message has come back loud and clear: the Government's offer is totally unacceptable and teachers and lecturers are prepared to take further action to secure a fairer deal.'
The union took part in last year's one-day strike by more than one and a half million public sector workers.
The row over pensions remains deadlocked, with some unions warning of fresh industrial action, possibly on March 28.
A BMA spokeswoman said no timetable has been set yet for when the ballot will take place and officials would be working on details in the coming days.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley told the BBC he was disappointed with the decision, because in negotiations before Christmas heads of agreement had been reached with all the NHS trade unions except Unite.
'I felt we had secured for the NHS, and staff of the NHS, the sort of pension they could rely upon, and feel confident in, in the future.'
He said the 2008 scheme had not been sustainable in the long term, and was not fair to taxpayers.
'All we are asking is that normal pension age in the NHS scheme for doctors should be in line with the state pension age,' he said.
A consultant retiring at 68 under this scheme would be retiring with a pension of 68,000 a year. 'I think that's a pension reflective of the value we attach to doctors, and I hope they will recognise that.'
He dismissed a suggestion that the NHS was 'in a mess', saying: 'I don't accept that for a minute. The NHS is its staff and the services that are being provided, and the staff are doing a fantastic job.
'Waiting times are down, mixed sex accommodation is being cut by 95 per cent, there's over 900,000 more people having access to NHS dentistry, hospital-acquired infections like MRSA and clostridium difficile are at record lows, and across the NHS money is being saved while delivering that fantastic performance. We've had efficiency savings of over seven billion already.
'It is in order to maintain that performance and deliver a better service in the future that we are intending through the reforms not only to empower patients with better information and choice, but to empower frontline staff, doctors and nurses.'