Union attacks Treasury attempt to curb public sector retirement

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Leaders of five million workers rounded on ministers yesterday after "Whitehall sources" leaked the Government's intention to clamp down on early retirement in the public sector.

Leaders of five million workers rounded on ministers yesterday after "Whitehall sources" leaked the Government's intention to clamp down on early retirement in the public sector.

Andrew Smith, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was accused of "spinning" against state employees when the Prime Minister has promised an end to media manipulation.

While public sector workers are seen as an easy target, many are represented by some of Labour's largest union affiliates that will be expected to back the party financially in the next election.

A Treasury report leaked to selected newspapers showed that retirement through ill-health was a third higher than in the private sector.

The Treasury described the 22,000 public sector early retirements per year as "unacceptably high", but union leaders say the figure has fallen from 40,000 in the mid-1990s.

Mr Smith said he had no intention of victimising anyone: "It is a question of following successful industrial relations practices so that we tackle incidences of ill-health and don't let people get away with it if they are playing the system."

The report showed that early retirement cost the public purse £1bn a year and that the highest rates were found among fire brigades where 68 per cent of firefighters retired on ill-health grounds. The report also showed that ill-health accounted for 49 per cent of police retirements, 39 per cent at local authorities and 22 per cent in the civil service.

Dave Prentis, general secretary elect at Unison, the public service union, which is the Labour Party's biggest affiliate, said that instead of indulging in a "whispering campaign", the Treasury should have talked to workers' representatives. "Why has the Government charged ahead and leaked this report to the media without discussing it with the trade unions?

"Those people who have been retired are not only the victims of stress or violence or injury, but now victims of a whispering campaign accusing them of swinging the lead. This is a slur against public sector workers, against the medical profession and against the trustees of pension schemes."

Andy Gilchrist, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, said that ill-health retirement was already the subject of independent and rigorous medical scrutiny. "We want to provide a first class service but it does not help morale when you are kicked in the teeth despite your best efforts," he said.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the Government was "taking a huge sledgehammer to crack a nut".

"They are suggesting that those who are unable to perform front line duties should be offered light duties. There is no such thing as light duties in education. Classroom teaching is a stressful occupation, made even worse by the constant stream of initiatives from the Government. Ministers should come out of the world of headlines and spin and enter the real world."

Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said some chief constables were more rigorous about early retirement than others, but officers should not be penalised for working in a high-risk occupation. "Medical retirements are bound to be higher in the police service than other public sector professions because of the very nature of the job," he said.

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