NHS: Change your policies, not our pensions (Article for UWE student paper)

British history is filled with protests, flooding our streets since anyone can really remember, from Saxons with flaming torches to students with placards.  A democratic nation such as ours prides itself on our right to protest, where activists can take to the streets and campaign for what they believe in.

The Directgov website states that: “The right to peaceful protest is a vital part of democracy, and it has a long, distinguished history in the UK…Taking part in a demonstration, rally or protest is a high-profile way to take a stand on issues important to you. Protests can make a real difference – leading to changes in governmental policies and laws. Peaceful protests allow people to come together and stand up for what they believe in, and can be a very effective way of promoting change.”

In 2011 alone, England saw many a demonstration against various policies, from cuts in education, disability benefits to the ongoing international Occupy campaign.  Not only are we affected by a great number of these government cuts by being students, but as future public sector workers as well.  For example, nearly 7,000 students at UWE are enrolled on healthcare-related courses, many of which will lead to careers in the NHS.

As NHS employees, 2011 graduates are looking at a pension scheme that works by taking a percentage of pay out of your monthly salary in order to cover costs – this means that NHS employees are left with less money to live off each month than private sector workers.   Pensions are then paid out on a final salary; meaning that it is calculated by the amount that you earn upon ending your career.  This scheme was agreed in 2007-2008 when it was decided that it was an affordable and sustainable system.  NHS employees are happy with the current scheme; although they are paid much less than private sector workers, they can be reassured in the fact that they have a descent pension at the end of their careers

But in 2011, a mere 3 years later, the government proposed a change to the supposedly ‘sustainable’ scheme.  Now, the government is pushing for a rise in the retirement age of NHS employees to match the state pension age, due to rise in stages up to the age of 68 in 2046, therefore resulting in older employees having to work between one and six years longer while fresh new graduates and younger members (aged under 34) will be expected to work up to eight years longer.  As well as this, employees are still expected to contribute to their pension scheme even in these extra years.  And if they choose to leave early, their income would be ‘actuarially reduced’ by roughly 4–6 % for each year.

As well as working for longer, under the new scheme, NHS members also lose out in the long run.  Instead of calculating their pension on their final salary, as they do now, pensions will be calculated by average earnings.  So, if someone were to take time off to take maternity/paternity leave, his or her final pension sum would ultimately lower because of his or her time off.

The Trade Union Congress are suggesting that the press are ‘spreading four big myths’ in order to persuade the public to back the government changes.   These leaflets aim to quash rumours in the hope of informing the public of the real deal behind public sector pension cuts.

Many believe that public sector workers get ‘gold-plated’ pensions, an unfair advantage over private sector staff.  In answer to these ‘myths’, Trade Union Congress points out that once the cuts come into play, “the median pension for a working in the NHS is £3,500 a year.  Would £3,500 sound like a luxurious annual income for you in your old age?  Everyone deserves a decent pension when they retire.  However, the assault on public sector pensions will do nothing to improve private sector pensions.  In fact, it will simply clear the way for employers in the private sector to drive down the pay and pensions of their staff even further.”

Of course, it is not just the public sector that faces pension cuts.  National debt is affecting everyone, so shouldn’t that mean everyone needs to make sacrifices to help pay off the debt?  Indeed pension costs are out of control in this country, but “NHS staff pay into their pension scheme throughout their working lives.  In fact, in 2010, £2bn more was paid into the scheme than retired NHS staff received in pension payments.  The scheme more than covers its costs and actually generate a surplus for the Treasury to spend.” If the scheme already makes a surplus of £2bn then why does it need to change, where is that money going?

Maria Furtado, 28, is a Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) steward for Pediatric Physiotherapy at NHS Gloucestershire and will be affected by these cuts.  Maria said: “Yes we are going through an economic recession.  If everybody needs to sacrifice to replace then national deficit how are bankers still able to get huge bonuses when banks caused the global financial crisis?”

As a female, Maria finds the proposed average salary calculation particularly infuriating as she says: “This could reduce your pension by up to 25% depending on career path. Therefore, especially for women, career breaks and reducing hours to part time will be detrimental for your pension.

“The new scheme will follow the consumer price index rather than retail price index. Again, this is likely to reduce your overall pension by 10-15%.  Basically, everyone is so angry because we will be working longer, paying more and getting less!”

On 30 November 2011, up to two million public sector workers protested their cause, staging a ‘walk-out’ causing public uproar and the fear that thousand of patients would be neglected and that the strike would cost millions.

Katy Thomas, 25, a fellow Physiotherapist said: “Although NHS workers decided to take industrial action on the 30 November 2011 service users did not suffer – throughout the country NHS staff still worked, despite agreeing with the industrial action, to ensure that patient care was not compromised. The same action was taken earlier in the year when the government granted a public holiday for the Royal Wedding!”

A new offer has been made by the government, sparing 530,000 staff earning between £15,000 and £26,557, but instead leaving higher earners to contribute more, leaving the battle for pensions far from resolved.

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