BMA leaders have been sounding off about the government’s “betrayal of trust” over pensions at their Bournemouth conference this week, against a background of civil service strikes and menacing noises from Unite’s Len McCluskey about jobs, pay and conditions.
Who can blame them when Fleet St’s biggest rightwing bazookas were trained on the docs all last week?
I haven’t written about the run-up to Thursday’s one day sort-of-strike out of a sense of fairness. Fleet St plays so dirty on these occasions. Not content with highly personal attacks on trade union leaders – the BMA’s outgoing capo, 64-year-old grandfather, Dr Hamish Meldrum, became a bearded millionaire militant whose old GP surgery in Bridlington ignored the stoppage – some newspapers whip up hysteria about the potential risk to patients.
Then, when the strike’s impact is less than Fleet St has predicted (pretty normal in these scary, less militant times), the same papers jeer at the strikers’ failure. Come to think of it, they treat England football squads much the same way before moving on to their next target with barely a backward glance: Wimbledon, or the £150m PFI crisis at the South London Healthcare Trust. It’s a bullying media culture, as Lord Justice Leveson has discovered.
What happens to those left picking up pension pieces? Not a lot, I fear, which is why I would have advised the BMA not to strike. Like most people with public sector pensions – I have talked to striking teachers and civil servants as well as NHS staff on strike – they have a strong sense of grievance about higher contributions and later retirement age.
What they all fail to grasp is how much more insecure private sector pensions have become (for those who actually have them) thanks to the switch from defined benefits to cash purchase and the plummeting rate of annuity payments. You don’t understand what I’m talking about? Precisely. Go look it up. I suspect that’s why Labour stayed out of the dispute. I can’t find a word from Andy Burnham. I also sense that Andrew Lansley soft-pedalled his criticism; he has trouble enough.
In Bournemouth, Dr Meldrum warned of a “betrayal of trust” by ministers for re-opening Labour’s 2008 pension deal. But the economic crisis has seriously deepened since 2008 and ministers say the deal was unsustainable. You can’t compare senior civil servants’ pay and pensions, you can’t say there’s a £2bn surplus when you know the docs fund will go into the red by 2016 and that – ministers are adamant on this – taxpayers contribute £4 in every £5.
That may be why Meldrum urged the BMA to negotiate, not to strike again, in contrast to his heir-very-apparent, Dr Mark Porter. The view from Lansley Towers is that the elected BMA Council is now in the hands of public sector diehards (that’s putting it politely) as militant as the junior docs, and that BMA officials are in private despair.
Both sides in a dispute can manipulate figures, say one thing in private, another in public. But the coalition has cut a deal with other Whitehall unions, including RCN and Unison, which are reluctantly co-operating in return for negotiations about frontline staff and varying precise retirement age. The BMA can have that too, ministers say.
And yes, the “broadest shoulders” (i.e. well-paid medics) are contributing more, ministers confirm, though that 14 per cent contribution rate is gross, not net of its 40 per cent tax offset. What Lansley can’t do is give in to the BMA in ways that unravel the bigger deal for public servants far worse off than GPs. Last challenge: if civil servants’ pensions are better, why is the BMA resisting shifting regional public health doctors into the civil service scheme?