Public sector pensions: Most unions agree some changes

Brendan Barber: "Since the day of action on November 30, we've seen a new atmosphere in the negotiations"

Initial agreements on public service pensions have been signed by all the unions representing local government workers, most health staff and some teaching and civil service unions.

The agreements were reached on a day of key talks for public sector staff.

Unison is poised to put the government's "final offer" to members of its executive in the new year.

But the PCS union has rejected the latest offer from the government for civil service pensions.

Government sources say they have reached an outline agreement - or what's known as "heads of agreement" - over the reform of the teachers' pension scheme.

Two major teaching unions - the NUT and NASUWT - have yet to sign up but sources say they are not rejecting the government's proposed deal unlike the PCS.

Commenting on the latest round of Teachers' Pension Scheme talks, Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers' union said: "The NUT was not able to sign up to the Government's headline proposals. There was insufficient progress in terms of the Government's position that teachers should work longer, pay more and get less."

The NUT's National Executive will meet in January to take a view on progress in the negotiations and its next steps.

'New atmosphere'

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has signed the deal.

Mary Bousted, ATL's general secretary, said: "ATL has signed the heads of agreement which commits us to seeking the view of members on the government's offer and continuing talks in the new year."

All these outline agreements still have to be ratified by union executives.

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Brendan Barber said there had been a "new atmosphere" in the negotiations since up to two million workers went on strike last month.

"It's important to stress that no agreements have been reached, but unions now have proposals to put to their executives and members," he said.

"We have reached a stage where the emphasis in most cases is in giving active consideration to the new proposals that have emerged rather than considering the prospect of further industrial action."

Impact

Monday was earmarked as a key day for union responses to the government's pensions offer.

The latest announcement is a broad outline of a deal with Unison, but it is only the first stage of a process that will have to go to the union's executive and possibly to members.

A new offer on NHS pensions was put to the unions earlier this month.

Under the proposals:

  • 530,000 staff earning between £15,000 and £26,557 would be spared any rise in pension contributions next year
  • So would those less than 10 years away from retirement
  • Higher-earning employees would be expected to pay more
  • Staff in areas transferred out of the public sector will retain their right to stay in the pension scheme
  • There would also be an improved accrual rate - the rate at which the value of a pension builds up, within a career average pension scheme

Additionally, the government has pledged to consult on the impact of changes on staff in the emergency services.

Mark Sewotka, PCS Union: "This is so unfair, we've got to stand up against it"

"This is the government's final offer. On some issues, such as contribution rates for the low-paid next year, and for people close to retirement, we have made progress," said Christina McAnea, Unison's head of health.

"On others, we always knew this would be a damage-limitation exercise aimed at reducing the worst impacts of the government's pension changes."

Rehana Azam, national officer of the GMB which was also involved in NHS pensions negotiations, said: "The sector specific discussions have been extremely difficult and there is still much detail to work through."

Key meeting

Unions representing public service workers met at the TUC, at the end of a day in which separate negotiations have moved at a varying pace.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the government remained hopeful of a deal on public sector pensions before the end of the year.

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If/when deals are done people will ask who blinked and whether the strikes achieved their goal”

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"It is possible there may be more progress in some sectors than in others. These talks are taking place at scheme level rather than the big picture level and different schemes have different characteristics," he said, denying that there was a policy of divide and rule.

A statement on the pensions negotiations will be made to Parliament on Tuesday by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.

Last week, the government confirmed it was pressing ahead with raising pension contributions next year for teachers and civil servants, even though there was no agreement with unions at that time.

The Department for Education and the Cabinet Office said the changes from next year would go ahead, although further talks would be held about future arrangements.

The most complex situation appears to be among negotiations between the government and civil service unions.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, the largest of the civil service unions, has rejected the government's latest offer, saying "nothing has changed" since the strike on 30 November.

Pension schemes explained

  • Final-salary scheme: Guaranteed pension based on earnings at the end of your career and length of service
  • Career average scheme: Guaranteed pension based on your average pay over your career
  • Defined contribution scheme: Determined by contributions and investment returns. Usually worth less than final-salary pensions

"We continue to oppose the government's attempt to force public servants to pay more and work longer for less," said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.

The second biggest civil service union, Prospect, has authorised its negotiators to continue talking to the government about changes to the civil service pension scheme.

Prospect also said it would not call for further industrial action while the negotiations on a new scheme were under way.

Dai Hudd, deputy general secretary, said the strike on 30 November clearly persuaded ministers to improve their offer but added the union remained concerned at the impact of the proposals on its members.

Local government

Meanwhile, the BBC understands that agreement has been reached between councils and unions on the principles of a deal on the pension scheme for local government employees.

Under the deal, the new Local Government Pension Scheme would be introduced in 2014, a year earlier than originally planned.

This will be a career average scheme, with a pension age linked to the state pension age. There will be no contribution increases for employees before 2014, it is understood.

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