On Friday last week, a leading Scottish national newspaper reported that “Scots doctors break ranks on pensions strike ballot.” This publicised the decision by the BMA in Scotland to seek a ballot of hospital doctors on further industrial action in protest against changes to the NHS pension scheme and particularly highlighted the Scottish government’s handling of the issue.
Earlier this year doctors across the UK took industrial action; I was among them. The response to the ballot and action from Scottish doctors was particularly strong. The day of action publicised our opposition to the pension proposals but provoked no change at all in the UK government’s stance.
The NHS pension scheme in Scotland is however, a Scottish scheme, and while pension policy is a UK government responsibility, the Scottish government has devolved authority for some aspects of our scheme, primarily staff contribution rates. Therefore in Scotland we are able to have our own dispute with our own government on the issue of our pension.
Scottish ministers have said they oppose the way that the NHS pension changes are being imposed by the UK Government, led by the Treasury. They have specifically criticised the UK government’s plans to increase employee contributions.
In fairness, the Scottish government has opened negotiations in Scotland in order to reach an agreed solution and compromise. Thus far it has failed to offer a genuine alternative, and after six months of talks, doctors are right to be increasingly frustrated and angry. Right now, we just don’t believe the Scottish government is willing to make a different, fairer offer.
The same newspaper mentioned above ran a leader commentary, which opened with “It is hard not to have some sympathy for Scottish doctors.” There is some genuine understanding of the unfairness of the proposed pension changes in the Scottish media, and we shouldn’t listen only to the criticism of our profession by the “usual suspects.”
In Scotland, all the opposition political parties say that the Scottish government must find a way to resolve this dispute. Scottish Labour said that “It would seem that despite lots of rhetoric from the SNP, they haven’t acted on their words and doctors are feeling let down by the Scottish government.” The Liberal Democrats shared the same criticism saying “The SNP government needs to make a choice about what it wants to do rather than constantly blaming the Westminster government,” and the Scottish Conservatives accused the SNP government of “raising expectations.”
There is recognition that the Scottish government in opposing the UK changes and opening up negotiations, has raised expectations of NHS staff in Scotland and now it is time for them to deliver.
The Scottish government has said it is “disappointed” in our decision to ballot while negotiations continue. But negotiations must be meaningful and offer more than just platitudes. After six months of talks we are no further forward. There is still no clear definition of what can actually be negotiated.
The Scottish government does have a responsibility to agree the parameters for talks and to offer up a genuine proposal on which to base negotiations. Otherwise meetings are just talking shops without purpose, masquerading as negotiations. We have heard all the words; now we need the actions. What the UK government started the Scottish government has to finish.
Scottish doctors don’t want to strike; we want a fairer pension deal.
Lewis Morrison is chair of BMA’s Scottish Consultants Committee.