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PCN staff to be given permanent access to the NHS pension scheme, under new Government plans

by Beth Gault and Emma Wilkinson
5 December 2022

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Practice staff and GPs working in primary care networks will be given permanent access to the NHS pension scheme under new plans proposed by the Government.

Currently, staff within PCNs, have to apply for time-limited or temporary access on an ad-hoc basis. Scheme membership for such staff is available only until 31 March 2023.

However, new proposals on amendments to the NHS Pension Scheme will remove this deadline, allowing permanent access.

The Government consultation puts forward measures aimed at ‘bolstering’ the NHS workforce and boosting the retention of doctors.

The paper explained that the flexible and integrated design of PCNs had ‘created issues’ regarding NHS pension scheme access. Because they can employ staff and hold contracts in a number of different ways, it can be unclear whether staff are working directly to deliver NHS services.

Over the last few years, time-limited access, up to 31 March 2023, has been provided to PCNs that meet one of the eight scenarios that capture the most common ways in which PCNs are organised to comply with the above principles of NHS Pension Scheme administration.

However, the consultation said it was important that the pension scheme be a ‘valuable component’ of the total reward package for NHS staff and not a ‘barrier’ to the delivery of services.

As such, it added: ‘The department is proposing to amend NHS Pension Scheme regulations to provide permanent scheme access to PCNs who meet one of the eight scenarios.’

It also said that arrangements would be provided for PCN sub-contracting. This would mean that all practice staff working on a ‘qualifying’ sub-contract would be able to access the pension scheme. 

The consultation said: ‘GP providers and salaried GPs would be eligible to access the scheme as practitioner members. Practice staff would access the scheme as officer members. In addition, locum GPs could pension income received from their work on the sub-contract.’

Returning to work

Meanwhile, the Government plans also proposed a change to enable retired and partially retired doctors to return to work or increase their working hours without incurring cuts to or a suspension of pension payments.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said this would allow staff to claim a portion or all of their pension benefits but continue working and contributing to their pension.

Other proposals in the consultation include:

  • Removing limits on hours recently retired staff can work, helping increase capacity
  • Allowing retired staff to rejoin the pension scheme
  • Fixing the interaction between the pension tax system and inflation to give senior clinicians ‘more headroom’ against the £40,000 pension tax annual allowance

The DHSC said the plans will enable NHS staff to work more flexibly up to and beyond retirement age.

It claimed the reforms will ‘open up extra appointments so patients can see their GP and hospital consultants more quickly’.

However, the BMA warned that Government proposals to reform NHS pensions ‘are too little too late’ and fall short of what is actually needed to prevent doctors facing punitive tax bills.

While the detail of the proposals will need to be considered, on the face of it, it seems doctors will continue to ‘incur sky-high and completely unexpected tax bills’ and the proposals fall well short of a long-term solution, the BMA pensions committee chair Dr Vishal Sharma said.

Moves to introduce a partial retirement option and greater flexibility for recently retired doctors returning to the workforce will have potential benefits including standardising retire and return arrangements, he admitted.

But it does not directly address the issues caused by the annual or lifetime allowance,’ Dr Vishal added.

‘These are not just issues for doctors nearing retirement, but they are also increasingly influencing the decisions of mid-career consultants and GPs, for whom partial retirement would not be an option.

‘These doctors will still have to consider reducing the work they do to prevent incurring large punitive tax bills and it is disingenuous of the Government to suggest that this will make any meaningful difference to the huge backlogs in care we are seeing.’

He added that a recent BMA survey suggested that over 40% of consultants plan to leave the NHS in some capacity over the next 12 months and the situation is just as stark for GPs and other senior doctors. 

‘And while attempts to reduce the impact of inflation may have an effect this year, without a change to the Finance Act we will see doctors negatively hit in the coming years.

‘It is essential that the Government addresses the anomaly of negative pension growth which has a disproportionate impact on the public sector, due to unintended consequences of the Public Sector Pension reforms.

‘Unless addressed, this will have a huge detrimental impact on the NHS, particularly if the Government follows through with its threat to impose further sub-inflationary pay awards.’

The consultation will close on 30 January 2023 and reforms are expected to be implemented in late spring 2023.

Part of this story was initially published on our sister title Pulse.