With all the focus of Brexit you mightn’t have noticed but public sector pensions are back in the news.
In 2015, for an overwhelming proportion of NHS pension scheme members, their retirement conditions deteriorated when the Tories forced through the introduction of the 2015 scheme despite a hard-fought campaign by UNISON to stop this.
A recent legal case, however, has found that elements of the firefighters and judges pension schemes to be discriminatory based on age. Specifically, the protections that were introduced for scheme members who were closest to retirement when changes to the public sector pension schemes were introduced.
The government have stated that this judgment applies to all public sectors pension schemes, including the NHS, that have similar protection arrangements in place.
Take the example of the protection arrangements in the NHS; if you were within 10 years of your retirement on 1 April 2012 you received full protection, meaning you retained all the benefits of your old scheme.
If you were between 10 and 13.5 years of retirement you continued to build up benefits in your old scheme and moved to the 2015 NHS Pension Scheme but at a later date (this is called tapered protection), while those with more than 13.5 years before their retirement moved into the 2015 scheme on 1 April 2015.
According to the government the difference in treatment provided by the transitional arrangements will need to be remedied across all public sector pension schemes including the NHS.
What form this remedy will take is still unknown but UNISON is working with the other NHS trade unions, employers and government departments to understand the implications this will have on the NHS pension scheme.
In other pensions news, an influential conservative think tank, that’s fronted by Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith and ironically called the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), has called for the state pension age to rise to 75 over the next 16 years.
While this is not yet government policy given the CSJ’s influence it’s not impossible to imagine a greatly increased state pension age in years to come. This stance brings sharply into focus not only the ongoing issue of retirement age in the ambulance service but how out of touch elements of the government are when it comes to ambulance work.
If you follow the logic through, the impact this would have on ambulance workers is staggering. The normal pension age in the 2015 NHS Pension Scheme, which is the age you can take your pension unreduced, is linked to your state pension age.
This means that, if the recommendation from the CSJ was accepted, from 2035, paramedics and other ambulance staff would be working until they are 75 before receiving their full NHS pension. Something that would be bad for staff, bad for the service and ultimately bad for patients!
At our annual health conference in April, UNISON renewed our commitment to reduce the pension age for ambulance staff. A motion from the UNISON North West Ambulance branch, which was carried unanimously by conference delegates, called for ambulance staff to have a retirement age of 60 which would bring them in line with the other blue light services.
The ambulance service often suffers from an identity crisis—is it the medical wing of the emergency services or the emergency services wing of the NHS? At times it feels like the ambulance service gets the worst of both worlds and retirement age is one of the areas where this issue manifests. However, the fact remains that someone joining the ambulance service today fresh out of school or university won’t have the opportunity to retire until they are 68, while if you were to join either the police or fire service you could retire at 60.
Considering the physical and physiological demands on staff working in blue light services, to have staff in one of these key services working until they are 68 is simply unfair and, as demands on the ambulance service show no sign of slowing down, it is also becoming increasingly untenable.
UNISON believes that this is a problem created by the government and is fundamentally down to them to fix but we would also call on ambulance employers and the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives (AACE) to publicly support a retirement age for ambulance staff that is in line with the other blue light services.
It is only when ambulance employers and trade unions are working together that we will get governments to act on this matter.
Colm welcomes feedback from ambulance staff and can be contacted at: