On 21 June doctors took industrial action in defence of their pensions. It was the first time they had taken action in nearly 40 years and the decision to proceed followed a huge turnout and an overwhelming “yes” vote in a ballot of members.
The timing of the doctors’ action meant they were taking action nearly a year after other public sector unions. The government then used every tactic they could to isolate the doctors further and to turn public opinion against them including claiming that the doctors’ action was “taking money from nurses”, an attack which outraged both nurses and doctors.
The planned action entailed doctors being in the workplace but not undertaking any routine work such as planned surgery. The action required a lot of organisational detail and was very successful in that, as planned, a huge number of routine clinics, GP appointments and theatre sessions were cancelled.
Some doctors insisted on working normally, arguing that “morally” they could not “ask for more”, as if their colleagues were a collective of Oliver Twists. This ill-informed position ignored the fact that the doctors had agreed to pay more into the scheme in 2008, when tiered contributions were introduced, with higher-paid NHS staff paying more – ensuring that lower paid staff were not subsidising the pensions of higher paid workers.
Specifically, doctors’ contributions increased then from 6 per cent of their salary by almost half to up to 8.5 per cent. The scheme is in a strong funding position and currently provides a positive cash flow to the Treasury of around £2 billion a year. A Public Accounts Committee report in May 2011 found that the reforms to the scheme were bringing substantial savings to taxpayers, with costs set to continue to be sustainable well into the future.
As with the other public sector pensions, the issue is one of theft of workers’ deferred wages – indeed, the higher the wage, the greater the theft. ■