Exclusive: The BMA has been pitched into a major battle with other unions after the Government gave them the opportunity of tabling an alternative way of implementing the planned hike in pensions contributions due to come in next year.
Health unions will have to thrash out how to share the pain of increased pensions contributions among their members, after the Department of Health has said it ‘would consider' any alternative options to their ‘final offer' presented last year.
The DH's final offer on the NHS Pensions Scheme involved a ‘Robin Hood-style' arrangement where high earners – such as most GPs – were asked to pay greater contributions, but those earning less than £26,000 would be spared any change.
At the time, the BMA said it would mean GPs would be hit with a ‘massive rise' in contributions of 9.9% from next April. But any alternative arrangements will have to fit within the cost envelope set by the Government for 2013/14.
The development has been called a ‘limited opportunity for improvements' by the BMA, but negotiators will face an uphill struggle to convince other unions that lower-paid workers should pay more to allow doctors to pay lower contributions.
It comes as newly elected BMA chair Dr Mark Porter defended the BMA's decision not to hold any further industrial action over pensions, saying it was trying to achieve its aims through discussion.
The DH said contribution rates for the next two financial years are likely to be agreed separately, but an agreement for the 2013/14 rates must be reached by January 2013.
A DH spokesperson told Pulse: ‘What we have said to the BMA is that if the unions themselves collectively wanted to come up with an alternative, they can.
‘We are dealing with the unions together, and if they collectively come back and say that they have spoken and come up with an alternative that they would be happy to agree to, then we will consider it.'
But Dr David Bailey, deputy chairman of the BMA pensions committee and head of GPC Wales, criticised the move as potentially divisive.
He said: 'I don't think this is a concession from the Government, which is trying to play one union off against the other. I don't think this is a particularly good way to move forward.
'We certainly want to continue to discuss with the unions on how we will take negotiations forward with the Government, but I don't think the unions should be fighting with each other when the issue is clearly the Government, which is pushing ahead with its policy. All we have asked them to consider is fairness.'
In a letter to members earlier this month, Dr Mark Porter said the Government had begun talks over their plans for doctors to work longer and as well as plans for tiered contributions in 2013/14 and 2014/15.
He said: ‘Even though the core elements of the Government's plans remain, we believe there is some limited opportunity for improvements through this process.'
A BMA spokesperson told Pulse the negotiations would be conducted in a ‘spirit of co-operation': ‘We'll all be seeking the fairest possible outcome, both through discussions between each other and with the Government.
‘The focus is now on achieving a fair outcome through discussion and campaigning. Although further industrial action hasn't been definitively ruled out, it's premature to be talking about possible triggers for further action.'
Story updated 13:56