Doctors decide on industrial action ballot over pensions

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The British Medical Association is to hold a ballot on industrial action over pensions - but has ruled out strikes.

It is the first time doctors have been balloted for action since 1975.

The government says the plans, under which the pension age would rise to 68, and contributions could reach 14.5% for the highest earners, are a "fair deal for staff and taxpayers".

But Dr Mark Porter who chairs the BMA's Consultants Committee said it had been left with no alternative but to ballot.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley told the BBC News Channel the ballot was "disappointing because it will serve no purpose whatsoever".

Under the government's plans, the final salary scheme would close and be replaced by a career average scheme for all doctors.

Ministers argue the current scheme is not sustainable but medics say high earners would see contributions rise to 14.5% by 2014.

A pensions deal reached in 2008 gave doctors a retirement age of 65, while those under the previous 1995 scheme can retire at 60.

'Mounting anger'

The emergency meeting of the BMA council, the association's governing body, went on for about seven hours on Saturday before a decision to ballot was made.

A timetable for the ballot has not yet been decided but a BMA spokeswoman said officials would be working on details in the coming days.

Dr Porter said the form of industrial action was also still to be agreed.

"The key thing here is that the government has given us no alternative but to go for a ballot," he told the BBC News Channel.

He said any action would be designed to "minimise harm and impact on patients - our fight is with the government not with patients".

There had been a "mounting anger" among doctors who believe the government "putting what they want into agreement" without talking to any member of the NHS, he said.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA Council, said industrial action remained a "last resort" and urged the government to work with the BMA and other health unions "to find a fairer way forward".

BMA Scotland chairman Dr Brian Keighley added: "This is an opportunity for the Scottish government to consider alternatives to these proposed reforms."

Chairman of the BMA in Northern Ireland, Dr Paul Darragh, also said the decision should prompt the region's powersharing executive to consider alternatives.

'Affordable and sustainable'

In a statement, the health secretary said: "The proposals are a fair deal for staff and taxpayers and make public service pensions affordable and sustainable.

"This means the nurses and doctors who dedicate their life to treating us will continue to receive pensions that are amongst the best available."

Mr Lansley added: "Doctors and consultants are among the highest earners in the NHS and have benefited hugely from the current final salary scheme arrangements compared to other staff groups. The biggest part of the cost of their pension is paid by the taxpayer - for every £1 that doctors pay into their pensions, they will get between £3 and £6 back.

"It is fair that higher earners pay greater contributions relative to those on lower and middle incomes.

"Lower earner members should not be footing the bill - that is why we have protected those on lower salaries."

The BMA accused the government of failing to return to meaningful talks on pensions despite urging ministers to resume negotiations.

But the Department of Health said this was "simply untrue" and insisted it had held meetings involving the BMA almost every week.

'Disconcerting and disappointing'

Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers' organisation, described the BMA's announcement as disconcerting for patients and disappointing to the majority of staff.

"This is a critical time for staff and it is very important that they wait until the government has released full, final details of the pension proposal before voting in ballots," he said.

The BMA had said it wanted to reach an agreement through negotiation and avoid industrial action "if at all possible".

But a survey of 130,000 BMA members last month found almost two-thirds of the 46,000 who responded said they would be prepared to take some form of industrial action if the government did not change its offer.

That could range from withdrawing non-emergency care to taking all breaks.

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