Update on pensions dispute from our Branch Secretary

Since Thursday afternoon (15 December) and the meeting of the Public Sector Liaison Group of the TUC, chaired by UNISON’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, there have been numerous rumours of a ‘deal’ that would apply specifically to our own Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). I considered it essential to try and let members know what information I currently have, though admittedly interpreted as I genuinely see it. As I outline below these rumours have substantial substance, though my current understanding is that there is as yet no final agreement. This would remain subject to ratification by Government ministers and, in particular, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Eric Pickles.

In the meantime, there are credible reports in The Guardian and elsewhere that the Government is holding a ‘gun to the head’ of trade union leaders by demanding an ‘in principle’ commitment to the framework outlined by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in a speech to the House of Commons on 2 November. The Cabinet Office (responsible for the Civil Service workforce) and the Department for Education, which oversees the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, have also indicated that the Government will press ahead with imposing increased contribution rates on those groups of public sector workers from 1 April 2012.  These contribution increases will not go back into the respective pension schemes, but instead to the Treasury’s coffers as the Coalition government seeks to force public sector workers to again foot the bill for the ‘deficit reduction programme’ and, ultimately, the historic bail-out of the banks and financial institutions.

Late this past Friday (16 December) UNISON HQ circulated a letter by email to activists in Dave Prentis’ name. A statement has since appeared on the UNISON website (http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=7500) in the name of UNISON’s head of local government, Heather Wakefield, and the leading lights from the GMB and Unite trade unions on the National Joint Council negotiating body for local authority employers in England and Wales. Unfortunately, I found this ominous reading. This statement has led me and many others across a number of public sector unions to conclude that something rotten is afoot. What is likely to be accepted by Dave Prentis and other general secretaries for the LGPS, including it would seem Unite’s Len McCluskey, falls far short of achieving any of the key elements of the basis for an acceptable settlement as nigh unanimously agreed at a well attended Camden UNISON branch meeting on Monday 3 October.

In short, our lead union negotiators appear ready to concede an increase in the retirement age for all those currently under 50 years of age, rising to at least 68 for those currently under 35 years; agree a career average rather than final salary, which is likely to prove less favourable for most LGPS members; abandon to the courts the attempt to reverse the Government’s switch to the less favourable Consumer Price Index for pensions benchmarking, and ultimately to accept large increases in our LGPS contributions, albeit at a later date. (What is not clear to me at this stage is whether the Government has committed to retaining the so-called Fair Deal on Pensions, which affords a measure of protection to workers faced with privatisation/outsourcing to the voluntary sector).

Indeed, what is on offer appears to be more or less the position advocated by the Local Government Association, the Tory-controlled umbrella organisation for councils in England and Wales. In my view, it looks all too much like ‘work longer, get less and pay more (but not quite yet)’ and leaves fellow UNISON members in the NHS, as well as civil servants and teachers in a much weaker position. These are, of course, workers who struck alongside us on 30 November and, in many cases of NUT and PCS members, sacrificed pay before us on 30 June.

The ostensible Government concession within the LGPS framework document is a postponement until 2014 of the hike in employee contributions. Even deferring the contribution rises will still mean the increase hits us after a further year of an absolute pay freeze and midst another two years where the Government is still looking to cap public sector increases at 1% – in short, another three years of what will almost certainly prove significant cuts in our real pay.

In addition to the worrying element of ‘divide and rule’ between UNISON’s own service groups and component parts of the public sector workforce implicit in any separate deal at this stage, a climbdown now by the major unions in local government, can only embolden the Government to intensify its attacks in other areas, if this is the most ‘militant’ stance that our own and other key union leaderships are prepared to adopt over what was supposed to be an absolute crunch question.

At the risk of seeming self-righteous, I have not spent a significant part of 2011 campaigning against the attacks on our pension schemes – or for that matter sacrificing a day’s pay on 30 November – to sign up to such an agreement. I am further convinced that hundreds of thousands of union members across local government, who also took action less than three weeks ago, did not do so in order to secure such a woefully inadequate deal. And acceptance of such a deal after battle has barely begun sends an altogether wrong signal to the nearly 200 people who have joined (or rejoined) Camden UNISON since the announcement of the pensions strike ballot in mid-September.

Perhaps Eric Pickles will move to scupper what is evidently on the table at present before Christmas arrives, but we can hardly assume that will happen. In my opinion and subject to the support of the branch’s other officers, I believe that Camden UNISON should commit itself to campaigning alongside other UNISON branches and members of other affected trade unions against the current framework agreement for the LGPS through all available channels and urge our union leaderships to reject scheme-by-scheme deals and in response to the Government’s insulting intransigence name the day for the next co-ordinated national strike early in 2012.

In terms of what we can do concretely in the here and now, there is a call for a lobby of the next meeting of the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group, which thus far is supported by the National Shop Stewards’ Network and the Right to Work Campaign. This is due to start at either 2.00 or 2.30 PM on Monday 19th December 2011 at Congress House, Great Russell Street, WC1B. If at all possible, I would urge any branch members who are available at that time to come along. Please contact the Branch Office to confirm the details.

George Binette
Camden UNISON Branch Secretary
17 December 2011

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