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To keep the best staff in the NHS, we must offer a fair pension; Dr Richard Lewis explains why doctors are so opposed to the UK Government's plans to reform public sector plans THEPROFESSIONALS.

IT SHOULD not be surprising that doctors are so concerned about the attack on the NHS pension scheme.

The proposals by UK Government would see NHS employees working in physically and mentally demanding roles until they are almost 70.

It must not be forgotten that the NHS pension scheme was completely overhauled just four years ago to make it sustainable for the future - even though the scheme was and is in credit - currently contributing pounds 2bn a year more into the Treasury than is taken out.

The proposed changes would leave some doctors paying twice as much into a scheme that provides for all NHS employees, not just for doctors, although their contributions are crucial to the sustainability of the entire scheme.

The revision in 2008, saw doctors agree to make proportionately higher contributions. Doctors and medical students have demonstrated their strength of feeling against the proposed changes - a UK-wide British Medical Association (BMA) survey showed eight out of 10 members thought the NHS pension scheme proposals were unacceptable, and almost two-thirds were personally willing to take some form of industrial action against them.

However, it is not just the unacceptable pensions proposals that have created this unprecedented level of discontent among the profession. It comes on top of cuts in patient care; inadequate staffing levels; a reluctance to address vacancy rates; training quality and support for professional activities being driven to the bottom of employer priorities; not to mention over-regulation and recurrent years of pay freezes. The government must understand the huge significance of this response and work with the BMA and other NHS unions to agree a fairer and more acceptable way forward as a matter of urgency.

For us, industrial action remains a last resort; this is why it's been 36 years since doctors last took industrial action.

Of particular concern is the proposal to increase the retirement age to 68, which could put pressure on doctors to work beyond the age at which they are competent to do so. There are curious anomalies in retirement ages for different public sector professions - something the government refuses to acknowledge or explain.

It's not only doctors who stand to be affected by the changes. It will also impact on nurses, pharmacists, dentists, cleaners, porters, managers and every other NHS worker in the scheme.

We have written to the government urging them to re-open negotiations and we are talking with other health unions that are considering their next steps. At the same time, preparations for balloting our members on industrial action are being made - should the BMA's UK Council decide that is the appropriate way forward.

Doctors take their commitment to patients seriously, which is why doctors would not contemplate a full-scale walk out.

But the survey of members is clear there is a large appetite for industrial action that would be maximally disruptive, short of withdrawing emergency services, or putting patient's at risk.

After five years of medical school and with up to pounds 36,000 in debts, working in an environment of cuts where wards are understaffed, to be told to pay more and get less - as well as working until almost 70 - is unacceptable.

It's not just about money; it's about the fairness of putting economic pressure on staff to work eight years longer in a role that is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding. It is also about reneging on an agreement reached only three years ago.

We believe this country should provide good quality health services with excellent patient care, provided by well trained, motivated staff. To keep the best staff doing these jobs, we must offer a fair pension.

The BMA's Council will meet on February 25 to discuss the options for balloting on industrial action if no progress is made through negotiations.* Dr Richard Lewis is Welsh Secretary of the British Medical Association
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 6, 2012
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