The NHS's very own pensions scandal may never have had quite the publicity surrounding Robert Maxwell and the Mirror Group - thankfully, it was on a smaller scale - but the hardship suffered by those who saw their retirement incomes disappear with the collapse of Qa Business Services was no whit less. The entire episode was a grotesque caricature of 1980s business excesses. That it has taken eight years to resolve is outrageous.
Qa was formed in a management buy-out from West Midlands regional health authority's management services division, against the will of most of its staff and amid conditions of great secrecy, in 1989. The Department of Health thought Qa a useful testbed for introducing market rigour into the NHS. The then junior health minister, Roger Freeman, said it would 'benefit from commercial disciplines and opportunities'. Qa was a privatisation which caught the spirit of the Thatcherite times, then at their peak.
West Midlands' management services division had had 400 staff and a good reputation for its IT skills. Within two years under Qa, staff numbers had fallen to 100, the company's reputation was in tatters and it had a mountain of debts - some of which included staff salaries. It did, however, own 97 company cars, 25 of them BMWs. The district auditor remarked that the buy-out had been 'badly managed' with 'scant regard for the interests of its employees'. And it quickly became apparent that Qa had insufficient assets to cover the pension liabilities of its staff.
One compensation which public sector employees enjoy for often poor working conditions and low pay is a secure pension. It was therefore especially cruel that for Qa staff pension guarantees proved worthless, while some directors secured generous salaries and severance packages before the collapse. As one staff member told HSJ at the time, the public service ethos had been supplanted by a 'get rich quick' mentality.
This shabby treatment has been compounded by eight years of legal wrangling. Ministers, we are told, 'wanted to wait for legal views and the weight of legal argument' before settling the matter.
They agreed terms only when the case had reached the door of the High Court. Whatever the legal niceties, they had a moral obligation to settle much sooner. They were vociferously indignant in opposition about the Qa fiasco. Dragging their feet once they had the power to act has only prolonged uncertainty and hard times for the pensioners.