Pensions: no victory yet

UNISON United Left statement on pensions


Many UNISON members may believe that the public sector unions secured a major victory on Tuesday 18 October with the announcement of a "framework agreement" that safeguarded the position of workers already in the schemes covering civil servants, healthworkers and teachers. After all, most of the press lamented the Government's failure to increase the basic retirement age to 65, while the head of the Confederation of British Industry was enraged by the supposed "capitulation" to the unions.

The UNISON United Left believes, however, that the "Economist" was closer to the mark in noting that Dave Prentis and other union leaders have effectively agreed to the Government's agenda for cutting pension costs by some 13 billion over the next 50 years, albeit by other means than previously proposed. By conceding the principle of a two-tier pension scheme in the NHS, the general secretary has indicated that UNISON is willing to sign away the pension rights of future generations of workers. Not only is this approach wrong because it is fundamentally unjust to younger workers, but it also threatens the longer term future of the NHS scheme if new recruits object to the notion of "paying more for less" when it comes to a pension scheme and choose to opt out altogether. In short, there are compelling arguments against a two-tier scheme and our members in all affected service groups should get to hear them debated openly.

Crucially, of course, the Government has yet to offer the same framework agreement to those of us in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). While Dave Prentis has urged Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to force the employers' body, the Local Government Association, to negotiate within the same framework, there is no guarantee that he will do so. At present, council workers and others covered by the LGPS face a worse attack than the one the Government revoked in July in return for the suspension of the threatened strike action. In the light of last week's developments there is a far greater risk that those of us in the LGPS will confront the demands for an immediate increase in the retirement age and higher employee contributions in isolation. Effectively, the "framework agreement" undermines the unprecedented unity among public sector unions that brought the Government to the negotiating table in the first place.

The United Left believes that our leadership's actions this past week breached the spirit and, arguably, the letter of resolutions overwhelmingly adopted earlier this year. The local government conference, for instance, categorically rejected "any suggestion of 'compromise agreements' on this matter" and also agreed to oppose "increasing to 65 the age of entitlement to an unreduced pension". This position was "non-negotiable" and made no mention of future workers not yet in the scheme.

There are clearly important lessons issues to be debated over coming weeks, not least about the transparency of the negotiations with Alan Johnson and the Government, the absence of lay member participation in the recent talks and effective control over our full-time officials. In the meantime, the United Left believes that there must be:

* A genuine ballot on the "framework agreement" in the Health Service, with branch meetings to give the opportunity to put the case against two-tier schemes

* A campaign to inform members in all service groups of the dangers of a two-tier scheme, and

* A clear call from the Service Group Executive for an immediate move to ballot members in the LGPS-linked employers for strike action if the employers don't back down by early November.

We also call on the Health Service Group Executive to defer any recommendation about the "framework agreement" at least until such an offer also extends to those covered by the LGPS.

Finally, the United Left believes it is essential to maintain the linkages we have established at a regional and local level between a range of public sector trade unions in defence of the pension schemes. In the coming period we should be seeking to work closely with fellow trade unionists in the FBU, whose own scheme is similarly unprotected by the "framework agreement". Unity at the base of the unions is certain to prove essential whether for a renewed battle over pensions or if we are to ward off the threats posed by further privatisation in the NHS and the latest New Labour proposal for state-funded independent schools.