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BMA pays for pension caution

It doesn’t pay to stand on ceremony when negotiating with the Department of Health. That much became clear over the last week, as it emerged ministers are to press ahead with imposing a 2.4 percentage-point hike in GP pension contributions.

The hefty rise – effectively a new tax, which will cost the average GP around £1,500 per year – comes into force two weeks before the BMA roadshows shaping options for potential industrial action even complete, with money to be subtracted from GP pay packets from 1 April.

The DH will rightly be the object of GPs’ fury, but it is the BMA – which has spent over a year dithering over how to respond to the Government’s pension plans – that risks looking the fool.

BMA leaders had been collaborating before Christmas with a broad spectrum of health unions on a combined response to the Government’s plans to redraw the NHS pension, but when it came to the crunch, it opted not to ballot members on sector-wide industrial action.

Instead, BMA chair Dr Hamish Meldrum signed a ‘heads of agreement’ document, which he thought was merely a commitment to continue talks into the New Year.

But ministers have, with a shocking degree of shamelessness, claimed his signature as a mark of approval for their plans, just as they have justified the thoroughness of their pension consultation by the number of responses they received – ignoring the fact the majority were negative.

Still, it is hardly new for politicians to behave with breathtaking cynicism, and it is disturbing to see how easily the BMA has been wrong-footed. Dr Meldrum has faced a tough job striking the right balance on the pension changes – opposition robust enough to get the Government worried, but not so militant it would write the next Daily Mail front page.

Yet he can hardly be happy with how things have worked out, with the deal now being imposed worse for GPs than the one first put on the table, and the BMA faced with balloting for industrial action after some of the changes it is opposing have already been introduced.

Of course, there is no guarantee earlier BMA action would have made any difference. The Government has given every indication it intends to press ahead regardless of opposition, and appears to have relished the chance to take advantage of GPs’ anger through its friends in the national press.

But the BMA has been left in an exceptionally difficult position, as the national focus has shifted firmly back to the health bill. Dr Kailash Chand, former member of BMA Council, argues in this week’s issue that now is just the wrong time to be fighting over pensions.

Ultimately, the BMA has little choice but to fight – GPs are simply too angry to lie down and take this one. Even if it is too late to stave off April’s hike in contributions, there are still two years’ further increases planned, plus the desperately unpopular rise in retirement age.

Dr Meldrum needs to get back on the phone to the other health unions and forge a new alliance to face off the Government’s plans. And this time, he must pledge not to let them down.