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We must unite against the pensions reforms

If there is one issue that GPs should unite on, it is against the Government's proposed reforms to the NHS pension scheme, argues Dr Andrew Dearden

If there is one issue that GPs should unite on, it is against the Government's proposed reforms to the NHS pension scheme, argues Dr Andrew Dearden

Put a group of GPs in a room and ask them to talk on any given subject – commissioning springs to mind – and you're going to hear a range of views, often passionately opposed. But if there's one issue that's going to hit us all very hard, and on which we need to unite, it's pensions reforms.

Naturally, what everyone wants to know, and what makes up the bulk of the rapidly growing number of calls to the BMA's pensions department, is exactly how they're going to be affected. As you'd expect, the answer usually isn't straightforward.  Broadly speaking, the changes coming our way aren't going to be good for anyone, but the extent of the damage depends on a range of factors, not just your personal situation, such as how close you are to retirement, whether you've purchased added years, and so on, but also on what the government decides to do next.

Part of the problem is that they're in the process of introducing various damaging reforms in a piecemeal way. First, in April, they changed the way annual pensions payments are uprated, so they go up in line with the Consumer Price Index, which is generally lower than the Retail Price Index. Now, they're ‘consulting' on the first hike to what we pay for our pensions – if you're currently contributing 8.5% of salary,  you'll be contributing 10.9% by 2012, and probably 14.5% by 2014.

The next step will be to bring in the changes put forward by Lord Hutton – making us work until the State Pension Age before we can draw full pensions, and introducing a new Career Average Scheme. On the latter, many GPs believe this already applies to them, but I can assure you that the kind of Career Average Scheme the Government has in mind will be much much worse than what we have at the moment.

When you take these changes together, and look at how they affect an individual GP, the results are sobering.

The modelling document we've recently published calculates the possible impact on your pocket of each of them.  It shouldn't be taken as financial advice, but it does give you an idea of how bad things could be. So for example, a junior doctor about to embark on a career in general practice is looking at the prospect of paying additional contributions, over the current levels,of up to £230,000 between now and retirement (which would be at the age of 68 under Hutton's proposals.) And that's for a pension which could be around £20,000 worse.

Although the degree to which you're going to be worse off diminishes according to how long you've been employed by the NHS, everyone will be affected in some way.  If you're retired and already drawing your pension, you're already losing out as a result to the change from RPI to CPI - a GP retiring at the age of 65 with an initial pension of £35,000 a year would be worse off under CPI by £2,000 a year at the age of 70, and by a total of £124,500 by the age of 85.

So, what's the BMA doing?

First, I want to make very clear that the Government isn't in listening mode on this one –  don't expect to see the creation of an NHS Pensions Future Forum, or Nick Clegg popping up in your practice any time soon. Talks are taking place though - we're always willing to sit down and have a reasonable conversation with the Government on any policy issue, and the changes to the scheme in 2008 were agreed in partnership with the BMA and our colleagues from other unions. We've now repeatedly made very clear that another increase in contributions is not remotely acceptable to the profession.

I don't mind saying that industrial action isn't our preferred option. None of us want to do anything that could risk the quality of care we provide, or cause harm to patients, and there are completely understandable concerns about our standing with the public. It's also not a straightforward process legally and requires approval by BMA Council, and a positive result in a ballot of the profession (which is part of the reason we need BMA members to update their contact details on our website if they haven't already). All that said, we definitely wouldn't rule it out, and it remains a possibility.

In the shorter term though, there's the ‘consultation'. While I can't use the term without the inverted commas, it's a major opportunity to let the Government know what you think about all the attacks on your pensions, and if you haven't already, I'd urge you to send in a response (we have some suggested text at bma.org.uk/pensions.) We have to communicate our strength of feeling and I hope that's something we can all agree on.

Dr Andrew Dearden is chair of the BMA Pensions Committee

CLICK HERE TO USE OUR TEMPLATE TO RESPOND TO THE GOVERNMENT'S PENSIONS CONSULTATION

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