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The state is "doing a Robert Maxwell" on doctors' pensions

What difference does it make if you or I think that doctors get paid too little or too much? They had an agreement.

Doctors. Photograph: Getty Images

Last month I re-read Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. A meaningless gesture to an author, sadly, now gone. I always remember being annoyed and confused as a child, reading the bit where Max joins the eponymous Wild Things in mindlessly destroying their own homes in a “wild rumpus”. The casual irrationality still makes no sense to me.

I find myself harbouring similar frustrations watching the debate over the doctors’ industrial action today. Conservative MPs, one after the other, condemned the strike in the strongest and least constructive terms. Maybe you have sympathy with their arguments; maybe you think doctors have a pretty cushy deal. Conversely, perhaps you think there is something to the notion that a vocation the skills for which take many years to attain, which involves long hours and difficult conditions, ought to be well rewarded.

Whatever your position, there is one argument which is almost never articulated. And it is, strangely enough, an argument which is absolutely vital to the system those same right-wing advocates support. It is this: Doctors have an agreement on their pensions; a freely entered into bargain with the nation’s largest employer – the state.

When I graduated, I had options. Career paths which led to expensive cars and summer homes in the South of France gleamed ahead of me. I chose instead to join the Civil Service, knowing that my earnings would always hover between 30 per cent -50 per cent lower than someone of equivalent experience in the private sector. I did so, partly because I knew I would find the work more fulfilling, but partly because I took stock of the environment within which I would function, the relative job security and, yes, the relatively generous pension scheme.

After a change of career, I am happily not in a position where 20 years later, having fulfilled more than half of my part of bargain, my employer can turn around and unilaterally change the terms of the agreement. But make no mistake – this is precisely what is happening to doctors. The state is effectively "doing a Robert Maxwell". Doctors are being screwed out of something that they thought had been agreed and was kept safely aside for their old age. And they have every right to bitch about it.

The contract is the cornerstone of free-market capitalism. Those eroding its solidity at the state level are engaging in an act of utter folly. The very same people who claim to be advocates of entrepreneurship and small business, are reducing the ground on which those concepts are built to quicksand. How would small businesses feel if their customers, after a product or a service had been supplied, turned around and said "I think I agreed to too high a price, times are hard, I’ll just pay you half and there is nothing you can do about it"?

Nothing exempts the state from being responsible for its contractual obligations. There is no excuse for those who tout “market confidence” as a vital goal to claim that the basic principle which underpins it, does not apply to them. There is no intellectual consistency in arguing one day that one should not interfere with corporate salaries and bonuses because these Captains of Industry possess rarefied skills, while devaluing the skill of the person who can restart your heart after it has stopped.

What difference does it make if you or I think that doctors get paid too little or too much? They had an agreement – same as you do with your employer, with the garage that fixed your car, with the travel agency through which you booked your holiday. The fact that their agreement is huge and involves tens of thousands of employees should make it more, not less sacrosanct.

Now, there may be intervening reasons which make the breach inevitable. There may be mysterious forces majeures, which mean there is no money in the coffer for doctors, while there is for cutting the top rate of tax. But such a position needs to be fully explained.

And any renegotiation of such contracts must start with a full admission that the state got it wrong and a plea for doctors’ understanding. Rather than an arrogant shrug of the shoulders and a cynical attempt to make people fighting for what is legally theirs look bad in the press. A change of administration does not vitiate the state’s contractual responsibilities.

So, those Wild Things peddling their views from television studios to Whitehall lawns, need to take a step back and assess, truly assess, the effects of their attitude on future recruitment, on consumer spending, on market confidence and on the free-market capitalism which they worship. Truly assess the consequences of their position. Because their true position is that a contract with the UK’s biggest employer, biggest buyer of goods, biggest procurer of services, is not worth the paper on which it is written.

Tags:NHS