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Pensions Q+A: Gail Adams, Unison

At the Unison conference held yesterday in Manchester, 2,000 members voted in favour of 'supporting service groups and sectors seeking to co-ordinate official national industrial action in defence of pensions'. In light of this, and the planned strikes due to take place on 30 June by a variety of public sector workers, NiP spoke to Gail Adams at Unison about her thoughts on NHS pensions and the potential implications of strike action by nurses

Does Unison agree with the pension proposals for public sector workers?
One of the challenges around pension provision is that the proposals are overwhelmingly going to hit women - low-paid women. Potentially, some may have to give up £15,000 in pension payments. Fundamentally, there is an ethical concern that the government is manipulating the media to spin the hype that pensions are in crisis. The pensions fund is actually in credit - the problem is that we are living longer.

Public sector workers did not cause the current economic crisis and I fail to see why we should have to bail everyone else out to make up for it. The myth that the NHS provides gold-plated pensions needs to be dispelled. Most nurses, when they retire, will have given over 40 years' service to the public and many will end up suffering from health conditions themselves after years doing hard physical work with patients.

Most nurses entered the profession not because the salary was huge but partly because the pension was a part of their benefits. If that goes, I think there is a real risk that nurses will vote with their feet, and the government is lulling itself into a false sense of security because it doesn't believe that will happen.

Do you support nurses taking industrial action?
We are currently negotiating the pension agreement in good faith, and our members are deeply concerned about pensions. We are planning for industrial action and Dave Prentis, our General Secretary, has made that very clear. If public sector workers are going to have their pension significantly reduced then they may choose to take industrial action. That won't be our decision, it will be theirs. I think nurses are very angry and I sometimes think the government has a perception that nurses are meek and angelic. But I feel confident that if the government comes after their pensions, they will soon feel nurses' bite.

There hasn't been any national industrial action by nurses since 1988, so this would be a big step. It is not something that happens every day, and the decision won't be taken lightly - but when nurses are asked to take a pay freeze amid price rises, with longer hours and more responsibility for less reward, people will react strongly. We remain hopeful that negotiations will result in a robust outcome and that we won't have to go down that road, but we will if it is needed and if it is what members choose.

How do you think the NHS would cope if nurses took strike action?
Clearly the decision would have huge implications for patients and that will not sit easily on nurses' minds. However, if nurses leave the profession or choose not to enter it in the first place because the pension package is insufficient, that will undermine patient care. If nurses have to work so long that their health eventually deteriorates, they will then become patients themselves.

There are plans to extend nurses' pension age to 65 by 2018. Do you think this is justified?
Of course, a large number of nurses choose to work until later in life and don't want to retire, but there is a big difference between that and forcing nurses to work, especially older nurses, who will be hit hardest by the pension proposals. A later pension age will mean these nurses have to change their plans for retirement, and if they work in the community, delivering equipment and experiencing stress at an older age, without being able to cope with the pace, that has implications for patient care.

Do you think there would be public support for strike action?
I think the public would have sympathy with nurses because we don't strike every year, every week or even every decade. There have been pockets of industrial action since 1988, but because it is a rarity we see it as a serious step - and I think the public would too. Would we be closing A&E? No. Would we be shutting down intensive care? No. Would we be closing down delivery suites? No. But would we be making sure that the action we took had an impact? Yes.

We would deeply regret any negative effects on patient care. But I would suggest that it is in the government's hands to come up with a fair set of proposals that recognise, as Lord Hutton did, that NHS pensions are not gold plated and that we do a difficult job. The work that ambulance staff do is just as intensive as the fire service, the stress levels are equal and there are further steps government could take that would mean we don't have to go down that road. Strike action isn't the outcome of our choosing, but Unison and its members refuse to allow frontline healthcare workers to have their lives altered by a government that is determined to make cuts in services.

Industrial action would be a serious decision for nurses to take if we come to it, but the negotiations are continuing, and whatever the outcome we will consult our members. We do not believe that the government should take nurses, midwives and health visitors for granted and I believe, at the moment, the public would prefer to put their trust in us.

Polly Moffat

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"I have been a nurse and midwife for nearly 30 yrs. I have always maintained I would retire at 60 giving over 40 yrs of dedicated service. I have constantly worked over my hours unpaid, as I am sure many nurses have. I would not strike as this is against my principles but I only hope the RCN has the guts to support us all the way! The pension was the golden egg in the basket for the years of low pay, abuse, physical and mental demands. And the chance of leaving work at 55 with a modest pension" - Di Bartley, Wales

"I am a midwife and I feel the government are wanting blood from a stone. We are already overworked and underpaid. We have severe staff shortages but are expected to be able to deliver the same patient care. The pension scheme that we originally signed up to was something to make later life easier after working very hard looking after everyone using the NHS. We are not asking for much just to keep our pensions alone and don't work us into the ground. I would strike in order to keep what we should have" - Susan Irwin, Cumbria