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Cameron’s all-out assault on public sector workers

Cutting pensions is just one part of the government's attack on public sector workers, writes Richard Blogger

The pieces are slowly coming together in the government’s all-out assault on public sector workers.

The first assault has been public sector pensions, a battle that has been raging for the last year. The government’s excuses have changed as rapidly as they have been proven to be incorrect. First they said that public sector pensions were “gold-plated” when the actual figures gave a different story. The Hutton report, commissioned by the government, says that the median pension was £5,600 – that is, half of all public sector pensions are less than £5,600. This is hardly “gold-plated”.

Next the government said that public sector pensions were “unsustainable”, but we know that at the moment the NHS scheme has a surplus of £2 billion – a surplus that the government should, but are not, be saving for when the scheme goes into deficit. We also know from the Hutton report that the cost of public sector pensions will peak in 2012 and then (as a percentage of GDP) will fall. Public sector pensions are sustainable.

As I have written before, one government policy that will have an effect on the sustainability is their plan to privatise as much of the public sector as they can. A pay-as-you-go pension scheme like the NHS scheme relies on the contributions of existing employees because their contributions are used to pay pensioners.

This relates to the next government assault: Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations – or TUPE. This is the UK's implementation of an EU directive to protect employees’ terms and conditions when they are transferred to another company. TUPE attempts to protect just the barest of employee rights, but even this is too much for a government desperate to try and encourage a reluctant private sector to take over our public services. In his Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced that he would start a review of TUPE, putting at risk the rights of staff when services are privatised.

One problem with TUPE is that it only affects employees at the time of transfer, meaning that new staff could be employed on lesser terms and conditions. Unions campaigned against this and the result was the creation of the “Best Value Code of Practice” or the “Two Tier Code”, which said that new recruits must be employed on terms and conditions no less favourable than staff transferred through TUPE. At the end of last year the government assaulted this employment right by withdrawing the “Two Tier Code”. The private sector are now able to create a two tier workforce with those who have TUPE rights and those that do not.

The next assault is on national pay bargaining. Currently trade unions negotiate with the NHS on a national level. This ensures consistency across the country. The common argument against national pay bargaining is that some areas of the country are more expensive than others, but this is largely addressed by London weighting. The Chancellor now says that he wants local pay bargaining to start next July. Note that this is local, not regional, so the excuse of regional variations of costs of living do not apply. Instead, the Chancellor wants pay competition between nearby hospitals. The effect will be to further fragment the NHS and prevent any form of collaboration between hospital trusts that have different pay scales.

The final piece – for now – is the announcement a review into Agenda for Change. A4C is described by NHS Employers as “a system that is fair and transparent”, that recognises and rewards “the skills and competencies staff acquire throughout their career” with the aim of “harmonised conditions of service”. It is breathtaking that the Chancellor can justify an assault on such laudable aims.

Richard Blogger writes about the NHS and social policy at NHS Vault.

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