The government needs to take a long, hard look at who is really breaking our economy, says Unison’s Dave Prentis
Nurses who voted decisively yes for industrial action over pensions did not take their decision lightly. This is the first national strike action in the health service since 1988, showing the strength of feeling among these workers.
Nurses, like our other union members, work day in, day out, to make people’s lives better. They don’t want to upset or inconvenience people, but they’ve been left with little choice.
Government ministers plan to make NHS staff work longer and pay more, all for less in their retirement, which is unnecessary, unworkable and unfair.
Unison has said from the start that we want to reach an agreement, and we are willing to negotiate right up to tomorrow and beyond. However, it was not until the eve of Unison’s ballot result that we saw any movement from government minsters. Even so, whatever ministers like Danny Alexander may say, there is still no new deal on the table that we can put to a single nurse, healthcare assistant or health worker. With the government showing its hand so late in the day, time to reach an agreement is short.
“It is a national scandal that the country’s highest earners get tax breaks worth £10bn every year on their pensions contributions”
Despite what the anti-public sector pensions lobby say, in reality, there is no pensions crisis. Only four years ago, unions negotiated new schemes to make them affordable and sustainable for the long term. This means the cost of public sector pensions, as a proportion of GDP, will fall. Both the health and local government schemes have billions more coming in than has to be paid out in pensions every year. We believe every penny raised by the changes will go to the Treasury - this is just another way of making public sector workers pay for the bankers’ recession.
Nurses must already feel like they are paying a heavy price - they have had their pay frozen as inflation rises. In addition, many NHS workers face the prospect of losing their jobs, when opportunities to find work are thin on the ground.
Our health members are not asking for much. They are already doing the responsible thing, going without between 5-8.5% of their salary to save for their retirement. When they do get their pension, it won’t be a fortune. The average pension in the NHS is £6,500, although this figure is skewed because of the 20% who are relatively high earners - consultants, GPs and hospital doctors. In reality, more than half of women pensioners in the NHS receive less than £3,500 a year. This is hardly gold-plated.
If government ministers were really interested in pensions fairness, they would be tackling the real pensions crisis - the lack of retirement provision in the private sector. Two-thirds of private sector workers do not get a single penny from their employers towards their pension. Although this will cost taxpayers billions in means-tested benefits in the long run, it’s still used to pit private sector against public sector, fuelling a damaging narrative that could lead to poverty in retirement for all.
It is a national scandal that the country’s highest earners get tax breaks worth £10bn every year on their pensions contributions. This tax giveaway, to the top 1% of earners on more than £150,000 a year, is worth more than three times what the government is trying to raise by taxing public sector workers’ pensions. This is even worse when you consider that top bosses in the UK have average pensions worth 34 times more than the average public sector pension.
It’s time the government took a long, hard look at who is breaking our economy. It is the mega rich who got us into this mess, but it’s nurses, healthcare assistants and low paid, hardworking families who are paying for the crisis.
Dave Prentis is general secretary at Unison