When Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said on 19 July that discussions between the Coalition and the Trades Union Congress had made progress on pension contribution rises and the Hutton report, many wondered what had changed.
In fact, little progress has been made, with perhaps one exception - that talks on local government pension schemes will be treated separately. Local government schemes, which encompass music instructors, and educational psychologists, are funded schemes and are generally in surplus, thus disproving the myth that public-sector pensions create a "black hole" in the economy.
The talks will continue in the months ahead, and there will be scheme- specific discussions "to ensure a fuller understanding of the implications of reforms, before final conclusions are reached".
In England and Wales, there is a consultation for each scheme on the first stage of contribution rises, to deliver on average 3.2 per cent additional contributions over three years. The Teachers' Superannuation Working Party has started talks on scheme design, in which the EIS will take part.
These are vital forums to persuade ministers that their approach is ill- considered. But these are purely discussions. The Government determines pensions policy and is not required to reach agreement on either contribution rates or scheme design.
In Scotland, pension rules are determined by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government, employers and unions have stated strong opposition to rises in contribution rates. But, as John Swinney recognised in his speech to the Scottish Parliament on 22 June, his scope is limited. Any change to the Scottish Teachers' Superannuation Scheme requires Treasury approval; and the Treasury has told the Scottish Government that increases will apply to schemes in Scotland and higher contributions from the teachers' and health-service schemes in Scotland will generate an extra pound;230m a year.
If the changes are not applied, the Scottish Government will have to find that cash elsewhere. It will have to go along with the pension hikes and scheme redesign or find the money by cutting services, including cuts in conditions of service and workforce numbers. That is unacceptable to the EIS.
The EIS believes that strike action is necessary now. We realise the Scottish Government has limited scope to resist the changes, at least in relation to the teachers' and health-service pension schemes in Scotland. Only strike action will serve notice on politicians that they should pay heed to what we are saying and recognise that they should work with, and not against, public-sector unions.
Drew Morrice is assistant secretary of the EIS.