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Rival unions take hard line on pension negotiations as BMA battles to win concessions

Exclusive: The BMA is facing an uphill battle in fresh talks over the Government's pension reforms, after rival health unions said they were unlikely to back any move to apply the proposed hike in contributions more equally across the NHS.

The Department of Health reopened talks on the steps towards implementing its ‘final offer' last month after the BMA suspended industrial action and agreed to inter-union talks next month on the contribution increases due to come in April 2013. It will also begin a review into the safety of NHS workers retiring at 68 next month.

But BMA leaders hoping to win concessions on contributions have been met with intransigence from other unions, while rank-and-file members expressed anger at the return to talks.

The DH has offered to reconsider some parts of the deal it tabled in March, which spared NHS workers earning less than £26,000 at the expense of higher earners. But it said it would only consider an alternative distribution of contribution rises within the same overall cost envelope, and with the agreement of all unions.

Unite's national officer for health Fiona Farmer told Pulse the unions were unlikely to agree an alternative: ‘We have just been put in an impossible position here. If the Government wants to make this change, then the Government should decide who makes what contribution. If we try tinkering around with it then it shifts the blame onto the unions.'

Jon Restell, chief executive of the managers' union Managers in Practice, said he would support ‘flatter tiering of contributions' among higher-paid NHS workers, but warned: ‘Managers in Practice is committed to protecting low-paid NHS workers from the brunt of the increased pension contributions.'

The BMA will join separate talks next month as part of the Government's Working Longer Review, which will look at whether NHS workers should be working until 68, if they can move into back-office roles and how the DH can make it easier to purchase earlier retirement.

Dr David Bailey, deputy chair of the BMA pensions committee, said: ‘We know age is a significant risk factor with GMC fitness-to-practise hearings. While there will be GPs who are capable of working longer, others will not. There aren't really any back-office tasks suitable for GPs, so I suspect they will be forced to work longer, with any safety risks to be locally managed by the NHS Commissioning Board.'

Some grassroots members reacted furiously to the BMA's decision to suspend industrial action, with a number saying they had quit the association in protest.

The BMA refused to disclose how many had resigned, but new chair Dr Mark Porter, writing in Pulse this week and understood to be personally heading up the pension talks, said his ‘postbag has been full of emails and letters from GPs', both for and against the decision.

Dr Andrew Thomson, a GP in Dundee, described the BMA's decision as ‘very disappointing'.

Although he had not personally resigned, he said: ‘I do not doubt there will be some members who will feel the need to walk away. It is important doctors send a message back to the BMA that it is not a good move and makes us look weak at a time when we were looking strong'.

But Dr Mark Sanford-Wood, chair of Devon LMC, said most of his members were ‘happy enough' with the decision: ‘I think the BMA recognises it isn't going to get all that it wants on pensions'.