The Nursing and Midwifery Council has begun a consultation exercise on its proposals to increase the registration fee from £76 to £120.
The 12-week public consultation, launched today, seeks views on the increase and whether or not future fees should be linked to inflation.
The fee hike plans, which would come into force from the start of next year, have sparked a furious response from nurses since they were revealed last month at the regulator’s council meeting.
Many registrants have already registered their anger in comments on nursingtimes.net and social networking websites. One group of nurses has set up a petition on the government’s website calling on ministers to review the change. Unions have held talks with the regulator on the issue.
The NMC consultation will now provide the profession with an opportunity to make its feelings known formally. It will remain open until midday on 24 August.
The current £76 fee generates the bulk of the regulator’s income, at around £53m a year, and has remained unchanged since 2007.
The regulator has stated the 58% rise in the fee is needed to deal with an unprecedented 48% increase in fitness to practise referrals since 2009-10. It says without the fee rise it would have to cut back on its core FtP work.
Launching the consultation interim NMC chair Judith Ellis reiterated the regulator’s previous warning that the fee rise was needed to “protect the public”.
“We are acutely aware of the difficult financial and economic situation that many nurses and midwives are currently experiencing,” Professor Ellis said.
“Seeking to increase the registration fee at this point will, for some, be unpalatable. However, it is imperative that we are able to carry out our core statutory functions to protect the public.”
She added: “In order to manage the fitness to practise caseload in 2012-13 our forecast expenditure will be £43m. This, together with the costs of delivering our other core regulatory and support functions will increase total expenditure to £73m.
“If our income were to remain at the current level we would have no choice but to scale back our fitness to practise activity so that we could live within our means. This would, however, mean that we would be failing in our duty to protect the public.”
Professor Ellis said the regulator had also sought to find other ways of saving money, including pay freezes for its staff, but was still having to eat into its financial reserves to maintain its current FtP operating level.
“We have significant efficiency savings built in to the budget, which will realise cost savings in fitness to practise and also annualised savings resulting from an organisational restructure,” she said.
“We have implemented a pay freeze for all but the lowest paid of our staff and we have also reduced activity in a number of areas to allow us to focus on core regulatory activities. However, none of this will bridge the funding gap that we face.”
The NMC inherited a financial deficit from its predecessor body - the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting - when it was created in 2002-03.
The NMC returned to a position of financial stability in March 2010 after implementing a financial recovery plan. At that time it had six months’ expenses available in reserves.
However, as of 31 March this year, its available reserves had reduced to three months’ operating expenditure, primarily due to significant additional costs required to deal with its current FtP caseload.
Unions reiterated their opposition to the proposed fee increase, which they say is “excessive and unacceptable” and means nurses and midwives will “be the ones to pay for the failings and poor financial management of the NMC”.
In a joint statement released today, Unison, Unite and the royal colleges of nrusing and midwives said: “We believe it is inappropriate to seek such an increase when nurses and midwives are already seeing multiple assaults on their pay packets.
“Serious questions need to be asked of the NMC and of the government as to how this situation has been allowed to develop unchecked. Registration fees should only ever be increased once all alternative options have been exhausted,” the statement added.
“We support the principle of profession-led regulation squarely aimed at protecting the public. We realise that the NMC is in a difficult position and that it cannot fulfil its remit with its current finances. However, it should not be the hard pressed registrants who pay for the financial failings of the organisation.”