UK - Unions have branded as "cynical" the UK government's decision to launch consultations aimed at saving more than £1bn (€1.1bn) in contributions to public sector schemes while parliament is in recess.

The consultations, announced earlier this month, will examine how to implement the proposed 3.2% contribution hike across a number of public schemes for civil servants, as well as teachers and healthcare workers employed by the National Health Service (NHS).

The Treasury stressed that reforms would protect the lowest earners while moving public sector schemes toward a "sustainable path" in an effort to deliver more than £1bn of savings in 2012-13 alone.

Overall, increases are estimated to reduce the cost of pensions to the government by £2.8bn, with £530m in 2012-13 being saved from the NHS pension scheme. A further £300m and £180m would be saved through increases to contributions to the Teachers' Pension Scheme and the Civil Service scheme, respectively.

In individual releases detailing how workers would be affected, the Department for Education highlighted its suggestion that the minimum contribution increase of 0.6% next fiscal year would apply to all teachers earning up to £26,000 - compared with a £21,000 threshold suggested by the Treasury.

The Department of Health - eager to make the increases palpable following widespread public sector strikes in opposition of the changes - chose to detail the hikes versus the effective contribution increase after tax relief had been taken into account.

The Treasury further stressed that next year's increases accounted, on average, for 40% of the planned increases being staggered over the next three years.

Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said: "This is the start of a process, phased over the next three years, that will help set a fairer balance between what employees and the taxpayer contribute toward public sector pensions."

However, the National Union of Teachers countered that it was "disingenuous" to say pensions were unaffordable and criticised the "cynical move" to launch the consultations during parliamentary recess when the proposals would be afforded less scrutiny.

The union's general secretary Christine Blower said: "We cannot allow this ruthless dismantling of our public sector pensions to go ahead."
Referencing a private letter sent by health secretary Andrew Lansley to Alexander that criticised the proposals as "unrealistic", she added: "We now have a number of government ministers recognising the flaws and the pitfalls of the Treasury's plans and numerous reports contradicting the government's line."

Blower argued further that the changes would be "disastrous" for individual scheme members and society as a whole, indicating that further strike action by the union was likely.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of public sector union Unison, called on the government to stop viewing the ongoing negotiations between individual schemes and the Treasury as "some kind of playground game".

Prentis said: "These talks are being put in jeopardy by the crude and naïve tactics of government ministers who don't seem to understand the word negotiate."

Prentis further criticised that the consultations indicated government positions were set in stone.

"If it is set in stone, then there is no point in having a single further meeting," he said.

However, Alexander countered that negotiations were not yet concluded.

"We will continue to discuss with unions how to achieve the required savings in the following two years, as well as the longer-term reforms proposed by Lord Hutton," he said.