Ministers moved to split the union movement yesterday by announcing that more than half a million NHS workers will not need to pay more into their pensions next year, but those earning more than £26,000 will have to make up the difference.
Under the plan outlined by Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, 530,000 staff will benefit when the threshold for freezing pension contributions is raised from £15,000 to £26,557 for 2012-13. But the shortfall will be made up with increased contributions distributed among higher earners. Although the move is not directly related to the ongoing negotiations over long-term pension reform, it suggests that the Government is trying to split off unions representing predominantly low-paid workers, such as Unison, from those representing higher earners, such as the doctors' union, the BMA.
Mr Lansley said: "Public service pensions will remain among the very best available, providing a guaranteed pension level for all employees.
"We are continuing to discuss wider changes to pensions with trades unions and hope to reach an agreement by the end of the year. But we are clear that people will also keep whatever they have already earned." Unison criticised the timing of the announcement as "unhelpful" while pensions negotiations were continuing. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail added: "These are tawdry divide-and-rule tactics designed to set one set of dedicated, hard-working NHS workers against another.
"Again, the Government is attempting to mislead the workforce and the public about the true impact of their proposals."
Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA, said the majority of staff would be even worse off under the change. "It is inconceivable that the Government can claim to have come up with this idea 'having listened to staff'.
"Thousands of doctors and medical students, along with other NHS workers, responded to consultation urging the Government against further contribution increases."
Unions say up to two million workers walked out in last week's public sector strike in protest at the widespread pension reforms. Further strikes could be called unless the dispute is resolved by the Government's Christmas deadline.
Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers organisation, said: "Hard choices had to be made and the change ensures that those staff on lower salaries, who provide a significant amount of patient contact, are protected from further costs in the second year of a period of pay restraint."
"We hope that this will create an environment where we can have substantive discussions on the broader issue of pension reform and we will play our part in those conversations to ensure an outcome that delivers for employers, for staff and for patients and avoids further industrial action in the NHS."