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BMA mulls ‘equality’ legal challenge on pensions ahead of meeting to debate industrial action

Exclusive: The BMA is considering an eleventh-hour legal challenge to the Government's pension reforms as a last-ditch alternative to industrial action, as BMA Council gears up for a crunch meeting to decide whether to ballot GPs and other doctors.

In an exclusive interview with Pulse, chair of the BMA Dr Hamish Meldrum disclosed it was looking at the feasibility of launching a legal challenge on ‘equality' grounds, after admitting further negotiations with ministers had proved fruitless.

Council members will be updated on the BMA's legal options at an emergency meeting on Saturday, where they will decide whether to call the first ballot of the profession since the 1970s.

The BMA refused to explain the possible grounds for a legal challenge, but has previously stressed that young GPs will be hardest hit by the Government reforms, with junior doctors in their 20s expected to work until 68 and facing more than £200,000 in additional pension contributions.

Dr Meldrum said: ‘We are looking at legality in terms of equality and whether there is any way we can challenge [the pension reforms]. We successfully challenged some changes to the GP pension scheme four or five years ago.

‘I can't say at this stage whether any legal challenge is going to be possible, or the likelihood of success. But we feel we owe it to our members to look at every possible angle.'

Saturday's meeting will also see Council members presented with a detailed list of options for industrial action, drawn up in consultation with BMA lawyers. If BMA Council opts to ballot members, roadshows explaining the options are likely to be held around the country ‘within weeks'.

BMA sources said Council was likely to be given the option of considering work to rule, but not all-out strike action. Dr David Bailey, deputy chair of the pensions committee, was tight-lipped on the details, but said he didn't expect a vote on a strike: ‘I suspect that won't be on offer. If a ballot goes ahead, I think we'll be looking at alternative forms of industrial action.'

Dr Helena McKeown, a BMA Council member, said: ‘Nobody wants to harm patients. But some want to see action and at least a message to the Government that it can't do this.'

Dr Richard Van Mellaerts, a GP in Kingston-upon-Thames, said the BMA was right to consider a legal challenge over the effect on young GPs: ‘Any and all options need to be explored that don't affect patient care. One option that has been suggested to me is not offering any set appointments. Patients would turn up, we would still see them, but it would be disruptive.'

Dr Anouska Hari, a GP in Westminster, central London, said: ‘We need to ballot because once they take away our pension, they'll start taking everything else as well. Patients shouldn't suffer, but patients at the moment are not being told the truth by the media. The media saying we all earn £250,000 a year is unhelpful and untrue.'

But writing in Pulse this week, health minister Simon Burns warned industrial action was likely to harm patients: ‘No concessions will be won through industrial action.'