There are few things more emotive to a middle-aged doctor like me than the threat of a significant change in the pension system.
Most GPs remain on the 1995 scheme, which allows GPs to retire at 60 without abatement of their accrued benefits. There is no doubt that the Government would like us all to change onto the 2008 scheme, which has a normal retirement age of 65, and all younger entrants to the profession are on the later scheme.
The Government has realised that there will soon be more retirees than working people to support them – and for once it is not just thinking in five-year electoral aliquots. As always when there are unpalatable realities, a report was commissioned – and the Hutton report suggests that the GP retirement age ought to be changed to 65, and rise eventually to 68, and that pension contributions should rise across the public sector by 3.2%.
The palpable anger demonstrated by the joint Pulse and Family Doctor Association No to 65 petition, to be presented to Downing Street in late July, is about the removal of choice from GPs at a time of life when they are too old to make alternative provisions for their later years.
There is nothing wrong with choosing to work to 65. There is a whole lot wrong with being told that it is becoming compulsory.
This anger was reflected at last week's LMCs conference with passionate speeches calling for industrial action – and equally passionate replies that this would be professional suicide (an argument that won the day). We already contribute more to our pensions than any other sector of the workforce – up to 22.5% of our income. Although our 2004 contract allowed much more of our income to be pensionable. this also increases our contributions, and we must not forget that pensions are pay deferred.
Although there is no pension ‘fund' as such, doctors' pensions are greatly in surplus and there is a gain to the exchequer of enormous sums each year. There is no financial need to increase our contributions nor to extend our retirement age.
The NHS Pensions Agency is going through a process of asking every GP to choose whether they should be on the 1995 or 2008 scheme. Illustrative documents were supposed to have been sent to every doctor in the last couple of months to show what the benefits would be on each scheme.
I will not pretend to offer financial advice – but most authorities consider that those who will definitely retire at 65 would financially benefit from the later scheme, yet lose the flexibility of being allowed to retire sooner should their circumstances or health demand. Sadly, not every NHS scheme member has received their papers and not all of them are correct. Careful examination of mine suggested that, should I retire at 60, I would do less well on the 2008 scheme, as I expected, but that with equal lump sums, both my pension and my lump sum would rise! A phone call to the pensions agency exacted a grudging admission that the figures looked wrong and that they would try again.
What can we do about the threat to our pensions? Industrial action is now clearly against GPC policy, as set by the LMCs conference. But this does not prevent the BMA negotiating hard with the Government to show the strength of feeling across the profession. Asking for signatures for the Pulse/FDA petition at various educational meetings has been one of the easier tasks I have undertaken. The profession is united. The Government would be unwise to pursue this unnecessary and unpopular policy at a time when it really needs GP support.
Dr Peter Swinyard is chair of the Family Doctor Association and a GP in Swindon.