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Shattering ‘gold-plated’ pension myths in the health service

14 May

By James Ito

You could be forgiven for thinking that the only issue facing staff in the NHS in Scotland was an attack on their so-called ‘gold-plated’ pensions.  Unfortunately, not only is the ‘gold-plated’ description wrong, there are numerous other concerns, both local and national, facing our NHS members.  Here’s a insight for readers to consider…

Local – Perhaps the biggest impact on NHS staff are the day-to-day issues at local level.  Services are being ‘modernised’. Usually this means doing more work with fewer staff and changing the skill mix ratio to have more unqualified or unregistered staff.

Governments at UK and Scottish level have boasted that the health service budget has been protected and given increases equal to inflation. Whilst this is superficially true, it ignores the fact that ‘NHS inflation’ is higher than RPI. This is partly due to the increasing cost of drugs (new drugs for serious conditions like cancer tend to be very expensive) and partly due to the increase in life expectancy (older people need more health care for more complex conditions on average).

The end result is health boards faced with a shortfall in money compared to the service demands. They solve that problem by employing fewer staff on lower grades – resulting in staff that at best are under pressure and stressed, and at worst are bullied into lowering standards.

Pay – NHS staff have had three years of significant pay cuts compared to inflation. In 2010 most received a 2.25% pay increase when the Retail Price Index (RPI) measure of inflation was 5.3%. The following year, they were subject to a pay freeze when inflation was 5.2% and in 2012 yet another pay freeze (March RPI = 3.6%).

In 2011, the standard rate of national insurance was increased by 1% and most Unite members in the NHS have had to pay an extra 1.5% towards their pension this year (with another 1.3% average still to come). Added together this means the equivalent of a 15% pay cut for most.

For some members the position is even worse. The removal of the National Recruitment and Retention Premium (NRRP) for Estates craft workers, healthcare chaplains and perfusionists is another pay cut equating to another 15% or so for these groups.

Terms and conditions – At the Joint NHS Staff Council the Management Side have brought forward a series of proposals to reduce staff terms and conditions.

The latest proposals would reduce sick pay to basic pay only and introduce performance related pay with incremental progression being dependent on staff exceeding certain locally determined criteria. The top points would be ‘non-consolidated’ so staff on the higher pay band points could have these removed and they would not contribute towards pension benefits.

Pensions – Prior to the April 2012 increase, NHS staff contributed about £8 billion to the UK Treasury and the Treasury paid out about £6 billion. The Treasury retains the £2 billion surplus – and yet the NHS scheme is described as ‘unfunded’ as though the taxpayer was paying out instead of receiving a massive excess sum of money over expenditure.

The UK government’s current proposals are to increase most Unite members’ contributions from the previous 6.5% to 9.3% with some paying 14.5%. None of this extra money is being used to pay today’s NHS pensioners or being invested for the future.

Public sector workers are being asked to pay what is effectively an extra tax as a deficit reduction measure and nothing to do with the affordability of pensions.  As well as the increase in contributions, the government proposes to reduce pension scheme benefits by making the age at which the pension can be drawn equal to the state pension age (age 66 in 2020; age 67 in 2026) and basing the pension on average earnings throughout your career rather than final salary.

Put simply: pay more for longer; get less.

James Ito is the Vice Chair of the Glasgow Health Service Branch, currently serving Unite members in the NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde and Forth Valley Health Boards and the Golden Jubilee National Hospital.

For the latest local and sector updated, please visit the Branch website at


Ambulance workers reject latest working-time proposals

6 Jan

Ambulance workers have rejected a further offer made by the Scottish Ambulance Service in an effort to resolve a long-standing dispute over working-time.

Members of the Unite trade union were tabled a compulsory one-off payment of £1500, plus a disturbance payment of £100, in place of the previous optional £250 annual payment, to settle the issue of 2.5 hours a week unpaid working time caused by the 2004 Agenda for Change (AfC).

However, 62 per cent of ballot papers returned by Unite members rejected the proposal as it once again fails to properly define the full terms and conditions of their working time.

Unite Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty said, “The Scottish Ambulance Service and the Scottish Government may feel that long-term problems over working-time can be resolved by a short-term buy-off but the majority of our members think otherwise.  

 This merely papers over the cracks created by AfC in 2004.  Eight years on we are still no closer to resolving the issue of how our members should be paid for increased working-time imposed by AfC.  That’s a failure of management and a failure of successive Scottish Governments, not the workers. 

We have consistently said that this matter can be resolved quickly with an agreement that genuinely clarifies the terms and conditions for this essential service. That remains the position of Unite and our members in the ambulance service.”  


Notes to Editors:  For further information please contact Peter Welsh in the Unite Scotland Campaigns Unit on 07810157931.

Your N30 – Take a moment to tell the world

23 Nov

Let’s make November 30th a day to remember.


If you’re taking action to defend your pension that day, we want to know.

Tell Unite all about it – then we can tell the world.

Send us a text from your workplace, picket line or town centre.  Let us know about the atmosphere, the turnout, even the weather.  Tell us what is going on. Or if you’re not on strike, send a message of support.

Your messages will be broadcast live on Unite’s website.  It will be a vivid record of a fantastic day for working people the length and breadth of the country.

It is easy to tell the world. Just TEXT it into 86888 (don’t worry; it’s free!).   Or send your pictures to

You can find your nearest event below.

You can also follow @UniteScotland and @N30Scotland on twitter, and use the #N30 hashtag to share your experiences.

What you’re saying:


The Governments’ Pension Plans to make people pay more to receive a smaller pension are a slap in the face to a hard working public sector workforce that do not get benefits the private sector do in bonuses and share offers and wage increases. It is a typical Tory knee jerk reaction to try and solve problems by taking from the many who earn the least and not from those who evade taxes through loopholes.
The government is risking putting many people into further financial difficulty by making them pay more for their pensions now and to worsen it later by paying them less for their pensions when they retire.

Also in making people work longer before they can retire they are not opening jobs to the next generation who would be coming into the workforce on a starting salary which will cost the government more and keep unemployment figures higher.

I am standing up for my fellow workers and will be taking annual leave to stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow union members in the march to the Scottish Parliament to fight this injustice.

– Tom Fegan, Edinburgh


“I don’t believe the financial crisis to be a political issue. It is simply that the people who were meant to look after the money got greedy and the rest of us are being expected to pay for it. If I hadn’t managed my money would the bankers have bailed me out? – No. I will defend my less than ‘gold plated’ pension which amounts to less than £5,000 per annum all the way.”

 – Jacky, Unite Workplace Rep from Kirriemuir 

 I wish you every success for your struggle. Now It’s time for all of us to fight to protect social rights and democracy. Solidarity from Greece. Our minds and hearts are always with you.

– Evangelos Lagos, Greece


@N30Scotland on twitter



#N30 Hashtag on twitter


All NHS staff want is fair treatment

18 Nov

– by Mary Alexander

Traditionally, health service workers are reluctant to vote for any action which might impact on patients. All that looks set to change. Very clearly, NHS staff are sending the message that “enough is enough”. In ballots run by trade unions such as Unite, Unison, and the GMB, thousands will have voted “Yes” to industrial action on 30 November.

Why are so many ordinary NHS staff so angry? The government has peddled the line that public sector pensions are “gold-plated”. When pay and pensions are under pressure everywhere except Britain’s boardrooms, this is a bit of mis-direction worthy of Derren Brown. But let’s take a closer look at the facts.

First, the NHS pension scheme receives £2 billion more in contributions than it pays out in benefits. Second, the UK coalition has forced through changes that disadvantage ordinary hard-working people – ignoring negotiations in 2008 by workers’ representatives to protect the public purse from rising pension costs.

Third, the government is imposing pensions based on “career average” pay. It will also use the Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index. Is this just boring detail? No, it’s another dodge designed to take your eye off what’s really happening. A lower standard of living for the likes of retired nurses, especially if you’ve worked hard to progress your career.

Finally, the government plans to link the NHS scheme to the state pension age. By 2020, this will be 68.

Why are lowly-paid people with a history of public service being targeted in this way? Especially when boardrooms are allowed to reward their own thoroughly ordinary performance with an extraordinary 49 per cent pay rise?

Be prepared for an onslaught of spin about “bad nurses” from government-sponsored reports. The reality is our NHS staff give astonishing levels of care. In return, they’re not asking to be “looked after” like the government’s friends in the City. All they want is fair treatment.

– This piece originally appeared in The Scotsman. Mary Alexander is regional co-ordinator for Unite in Scotland

Unite votes YES to public sector strike action on November 30th

17 Nov

Delegates to the STUC Women's Congress support the day of action

Unite members in Scotland have strongly endorsed the public sector strike action scheduled for 30 November in ballot results announced today. 74% of local authority workers and 80.5% of those in the NHS voted in favour of taking industrial action. Unite members will join millions of fellow public sector workers on a day of action that will challenge the Coalition Government’s assault on public sector pensions, and on living conditions for working people.

The vote for strike action heaps further pressure on the government to rethink its plans to force public sector workers to pay more and work longer, but for a poorer pension in retirement.

Economic indicators show that the cuts aren’t working: the UK economy is stagnating, with 2.6 million unemployed, including one million young people stuck on the dole queue. Chancellor George Osborne is left scrambling for explanations as it becomes clear he will miss his target for deficit reduction. Desperate attempts to massage unemployment figures by forcing unemployed people to provide free labour to supermarkets will only further undermine the job market for those seeking work.

Commenting on the result of the ballot, Unite Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty said:

“Public sector workers in Scotland are telling the government that `enough is enough’. They are enduring wages cuts, rising living costs and horrific job losses, as the UK government forces the less well off in this country to pay for the sins of the elite. They are not prepared to stomach this attack on their pensions, too.

“A deal has been struck with the Scottish Government to exempt the increase in contributions of local government employees. While Unite views this as progress in contrast with the imposition by the UK Government there is still the outstanding issue of all public sector workers having to work longer to receive a smaller pension. For public sector workers outside of local government they are still faced with the prospect of paying more into a pension.”

For all public sector workers the change in the way the pensions are calculated from RPI to CPI will see 15 per cent automatically wiped off the value of pensions.  Unite is one of a group of unions currently challenging this move in the High Court.

For information on the 30 November day of action, see the Pensions Justice Scotland website.

Scotland’s Ambulance Workers Overwhelmingly Reject Working-time Plans

23 Sep

Joint statement by Unite Scotland & Unison Scotland: 

Scotland’s ambulance workers have overwhelmingly rejected latest proposals by the Scottish Ambulance Service to resolve a protracted working time dispute.

Members of Unison and Unite were balloted on the proposed changes to their terms and conditions, with both trades unions returning an 80 per cent rejection of the offer of August 12th.   However, proposals for a lump sum payment of £250 a year for workers to respond during unpaid time, plus £50 per call-out, fails to address the wider issues at play.

Unite Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty said, This rejection merely scratches the surface of the issue.  Our members want to see the Scottish Ambulance Service properly resourced and fit to serve the public. Instead they have been demonised for following imposed working time changes.

In 2004, the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) reduced our members’ working week by 2.5 hours.  Simply trying to pigeon-hole the unresolved issue of unpaid working time as a ‘meal-break’ fails to address the matter. 

Lump sum payments merely ignore the problems created by AfC – problems that can be resolved very quickly by the Scottish Government and through a negotiated agreement which both Unison and Unite members are fully committed.”

David Forbes, Regional Organiser for Unison, said: The employer’s offer was put to our members and they have voted overwhelmingly to reject these proposals.

“Ambulance work is very demanding and our members greatly value balance and stability in their working time, during which it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that adequate staff and resources are in place to cover these periods.

Our members deal with life and death decisions day in, day out.  That’s why it’s so important to staff – and for the piece of mind of the Scottish public – that often long and stressful shifts are underpinned by clarity in the terms and conditions of this essential workforce.”


Notes to editors

  • Unison’s ballot saw a turnout of 74.1 per cent of members. Of these members, 79.2 per cent voted to reject the proposals.
  • Unite’s ballot saw a turnout of 67 per cent of members. Of these members, 80 per cent voted to reject the proposals.
  • Ambulance workers, along with other NHS staff, work 37.5 hours per week, with an additional 30 minute unpaid meal break each day.
  • For further information contact David Forbes, Regional Organiser for Unison, on 07985 121397 or 0131 226 0059 or John Gallacher Unite Scottish Ambulance Service Convenor on 07789 923749.


NHS Tayside learning survey

25 Mar

In the last quarter of 2010, the NHS Tayside Lifelong Learning Group conducted a survey asking staff about their learning needs. The survey was distributed universally by email, and somewhat unevenly in hard copy. The survey is a practical exercise to determine what staff are interested in learning, and where they are physically based, so that lifelong learning courses can be organised for them. Courses are organised through the Lifelong Learning Group, which is made of the representatives of the NHS and the unions and professional organisations, including Unite, Unison and the RCN.

This is the second time this survey has been run. There were 1,258 responses to the survey, which is close to the response of 1,341 achieved when the survey was run in 2008. This represents just under 10% of staff employed by NHS Tayside, and it is interesting that this response rate has been consistent. The survey run in 2010 did not ask exactly the same questions as 2008, as the decision was made to ask more detailed questions that would provide the practical information necessary to organise appropriate learning.

Nonetheless, there is enough overlap to be able to compare responses to this survey with the previous one. Once again, ancillary staff – those who would benefit most from learning – are under represented. However, it should be noted that many who ticked the “other” box indicated that they were domestic or other ancillary workers, so the response is somewhat better than it first appears.


We are making slow progress in raising awareness. In 2008, 73% of respondents had never heard of Union Learning Reps. This figure is now down to 60%, which is an improvement, but still not an ideal situation. Also encouraging is the fact that 46% of people had heard of the Group.

Learning needs

Questions about learning needs were asked in considerably more detail than in the previous survey. This was done in order to drill down and quantify the learning need more specifically so that learning opportunities could be organised. One of the criticisms of the previous survey was that it was not sufficiently detailed to be able to organise courses for people.

Languages and communications

There is a very high demand for Communications, Report Writing and Public Speaking and Presentations courses. This is encouraging as these courses are relatively easy to organise through existing funding streams. Under “other”, a number of participants indicated that they would like to learn British Sign Language. The high level of demand for this course suggests it should have been an option on the survey. Other requests included Gaelic, Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Urdu, short hand and Portuguese.

Maths and numbers

Clearly the biggest demand here is for a Pensions course.

IT and Computers

There is still demand for basic IT, but there is a much greater demand for advanced courses, including a surprising number for web design. This may be a result of the work done by the Group to deliver basic IT over the past two years. Over 100 respondents gave detailed responses. For the most part, this was to request specific modules – Excel and database software being especially popular. Other requests included Photoshop, CSS, project management software, digital story telling and using video, ASP.Net, Java, building and fixing PCs, Cisco networking, Red Hat Linux and Microsoft Certified Training. Some responses were slightly concerning, such as the following:

“Anything IT related as I am supposed to be one of the IT support at our surgery” – Female admin worker, Dundee

Others showed a considered response to the role of IT in the workplace:

“Myself and colleagues would like to create a web page for our project, to allow a wide range of people to access our information.”- Female allied health professional, Perth “I would be interested in gaining skills such as web design, software development etc. that may allow me to consider a career move/promotion if the opportunity came up within my department.” – Female admin worker, Dundee

Trade union courses

There was a fairly high demand for trade union courses, including for Union Learning Rep training, which will need to be followed up by the group.

Further and Higher Education and Vocational training

There was a high level of interest in this category, including more than 200 people wanting to do post-graduate degrees. Open University courses were also a popular option, and we will make our contacts in the OU aware of the demand at NHS Tayside. However, what is striking is that 282 people – 46% of respondents – indicated that they would like work related qualifications. 155 people left detailed commentary about their work related learning needs. This needs to be analysed carefully by the organisation to see how it maps into existing training provision.

95% of participants indicated that they had a computer with Internet access at home. However, it should be noted that this reflects that fact that the primary distribution method was by email. 75% of respondents said that Dundee was a suitable training venue, with about 30% each indicating that Perth or Angus were suitable. A small percentage ticked the “other” option – for this group, Fife was the most popular venue. 126 respondents indicated they would like further information on becoming a learning rep. This information will have to be disaggregated by union, and contact made by the relevant organisation.

Why do you want to learn?


The results of this question are almost exactly the same as they were in the previous survey.


There is a clear bias in the survey to staff who already have relatively high skills levels. This is demonstrated by the high response from Allied Health Professionals and Admin and Clerical staff, as well as the high demand for post-graduate courses. We will need to do more to reach Ancillary and Estates staff members. There is still a high demand for learning within NHS Tayside which has hardly been dented by the Lifelong Learning Group. However, there is some shift in the demand – we are seeing less demand for basic IT, perhaps as a result of successful courses run – and a greater demand for more advanced and specific packages. It is also clear from many of the written answers that respondents are unclear of the nature of the offer, with some indicating that it is inappropriate to use NHS resources to fund non-vocational learning during a time of public sector cuts. There is not a wide spread awareness that the learning is organised as a partnership and leverages in additional resources to support NHS staff. This suggests there is a continue need for publicity. The next step for the Group is to share the overview survey results with learning providers and negotiate a course programme for the year with them.

The Unite learning programme in NHS Tayside is run by convenor John Boland. You can contact him, or any other Unite rep, here.