Pension talks end; unions told to put up or shut up

16th March 2012 at 00:00
The debate is over and the offer on the table is final, ministers say

After a long and at times ill-tempered series of talks on its plans to reform teachers' pensions, the government has finally had enough. No more negotiations will take place, ministers have announced; no more concessions will be made. The government will be pressing ahead with the current offer and the unions have been left with a simple choice: put up or shut up.

Since the government thrashed out its final proposals for pensions reform with the teaching unions before Christmas, progress has been painfully slow, and sometimes non-existent. While general secretaries have been busy consulting their members, disagreements between the unions over thorny issues such as contribution levels have not been resolved.

With the Treasury growing increasingly frustrated at being unable to get a straight answer from the unions, ministers have decided that enough is enough. Last week's meeting at the Department for Education chaired by schools minister Nick Gibb was, the unions were told, the last. "We've been clear that the formal talks are now over and the ball is in the remaining unions' court to decide whether to sign up," a DfE spokesman said.

Irrespective of what the unions decide, the message was clear: the changes will be made.

What happens next is far from obvious. So far, just the NUT and the University and College Union (UCU) have signalled any intention to strike, with both consulting members about taking action on 28 March. The NASUWT, whose national executive unanimously rejected the final offer, will continue its "quiet revolution" work-to-rule campaign, but has no plans to join the strike. The ATL, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the NAHT heads' union are still consulting members, but have no plans to take industrial action.

The final document published last week makes it clear that the pensions deal is conditional on the "cessation of any industrial action on pension reform", raising the prospect that an earlier, less generous package could still be imposed in the event of further strikes. But TES understands that the DfE currently has no plans to carry out this threat.

While the final proposal contains some extra details - including a commitment by the government to carry out an equality impact assessment and to monitor how many teachers opt out of the redesigned scheme - the deal is far from complete.

The elephant in the room is exactly how teachers' contributions will rise beyond 2013. Anxious to finalise the rest of the changes - and conscious that the split between heads' and classroom unions on this issue remains - the Department has decided to put this matter on hold for now.

With the other outstanding details supposedly finalised at last week's meeting, union leaders were surprised to see that a later draft of the document contained an extra clause: teachers will, it said, be able to effectively buy an early retirement. When the retirement age goes up to 68, teachers will have the option of leaving at 65, provided they increase their contributions before retirement to make up for any shortfall.

"We were surprised at this very late addition, which wasn't mentioned," ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said. "On the face of it, it looks like a positive step."

The ATL, however, was less than pleased, with Martin Freedman, the union's head of pay, conditions and pensions, arguing that only the best-paid heads would be able to afford this luxury.

The DfE insists that it is happy with the deal. "We've made good progress on the key areas that unions say matter most to the profession: retirement age, equalities issues and how contributions should be balanced between the top and lowest earners."

But as NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby points out, it still means "a large cut in pay and conditions for teachers".

The final deal

- Teachers' retirement age will rise from 65 to 68.

- Pensions will based on career-average salary, rather than final salary, with an accrual rate of 157.

- Revaluation factor for accruals of consumer price index plus 1.6 per cent.

- Contributions will rise by around 50 per cent by 2015.

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