ACCEPTING pay restraint is the only alternative to compulsory job losses, health secretary Alex Neil has told union members.
He told Unison’s Scottish health conference in Glasgow yesterday that only a vote for independence next year would give the Scottish Government power to make positive changes.
But he was told ministers were capable of improving pay and reversing pension contribution increases across the public sector, whatever the result of the referendum.
Mr Neil said the SNP has been up-front about budget constraints. “We took the decision that the priority is jobs,” he said.
“We’ve moved from a position of a pay freeze to an increase this year, and hopefully more rises in future which are more in line with inflation.”
Constraint will be needed until about 2018, he told the conference.
Expanding on his vision for the NHS, he invited union members to consider whether Scotland should remain part of the UK. “When you vote next year, that’s the decision you’ve all got to make: are you going to stay with this and have further pension cuts imposed, further wage freezes imposed and further budget cuts imposed, or are you going to vote for something different?” he said.
“In 2015, if we are in charge of pensions, if we are responsible for the legislation, we will sit down with the trade union movement and will negotiate a way forward for pensions in a different kind of Scotland.
“That’s what we’ll do and that’s something every one of you, and as a union collectively, will have to make a decision on.”
His comments were applauded by many, but Tom Waterson, Unison’s Scottish health committee chairman, challenged Mr Neil’s assertion. “I believe there is still enough in the system to pay NHS and public sector workers a fair and decent wage,” he said.
He said employees had already had three years of frozen wages, which had led to a drop in living standards, and added: “It is within the government’s gift to make changes and not pass on all these cuts.”
Unison wants Mr Neil to prevent a third year of rises in pension contributions in 2014-15, making up the shortfall with “efficiency savings” instead.
The union also wants to scrap the NHS Pay Review Body which it says is a “busted flush”.
Last month, Unison warned of strikes by nurses and hospital workers that could lead to the cancellation of hundreds of non-emergency operations, amid anger over pensions.
It said members were increasingly angry over the UK government’s so-called “pensions tax” that requires some public-sector workers, including NHS employees, to increase contributions to their pension funds.
NHS staff will see a real-terms drop in pay as a result of the rising pension contributions, being phased in over three years.