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Clinial News Analysis- Can a new pension scheme prevent staff shortages?

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Will new pension benefits designed to encourage nurses to continue working into their 60s solve NHS workforce problems, asks Richard Staines

Nurses joining the health service from next month will sign up to a revised pension scheme that allows more flexibility as they reach retirement age – the hope being that more will choose to stay on until they are 65 (NT News, 25 September, p3).

The revised scheme certainly appears necessary if latest predictions on workforce needs are to be believed. But will the scheme be enough on its own to prevent a shortfall in the number of registered nurses?

A report commissioned by the RCN and written by James Buchan, professor of social sciences and healthcare at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh, says that unless some kind of action is taken, the number of registered nurses in England could fall by 18.5% over the next 10 years.

The report, Nursing Futures, Future Nurses, is a stark warning that the combined effects of retirement and nurses going to work in other countries or leaving the profession altogether could have a hugely negative impact on the workforce as a whole.

But NHS Employers argues that the benefits available to people joining the NHS pension scheme from 1 April will make a difference. Aside from the retirement age increasing from 60 to 65 for new members, there will be a new way of calculating pension payments that incentivises nurses and staff to stay on longer in the NHS, either working reduced hours or doing a less-demanding role.

Instead of calculating payments according to the last three years of service, the new scheme will do so based on the best three years of the last 10 in service. As such, nurses will not be penalised if they take a pay cut by reducing their working hours or opt for a less stressful job as they near or pass retirement age. They will also be able to continue working past retirement age by topping up their income with reduced pension payments until they retire, when they can collect the full pension as normal.

Jeremy Orr, pensions review project manager at NHS Employers, told NT: ‘This will allow you to take part of your pension while continuing to work in a less demanding job.

‘If you want to start taking it easier and want to drop down the number of hours but can’t afford that because you still have mortgage payments, you can bump up what you get by drawing a bit of your pension,’ he said.

RCN policy adviser Howard Catton agreed that the revised pension scheme could have a part to play in defusing the nurse retirement time bomb. ‘One way of securing a big increase in workforce in the future is to reduce retirement – that must be part of it,’ he said. But he added that more must be done to improve working conditions, thereby, ‘making people want to stay in the workforce because they want to nurse’.

‘They need to feel that the system is working for them – training them adequately for the job that they are doing,’ he said.

Mike Travis, RCN steward at Royal Liverpool Children’s NHS Trust, agreed but warned that more must be done to improve the working lives of nurses all the way through their career. Otherwise the problem of nurses leaving the profession would persist, regardless of the new pension scheme, he said.

‘By the time nurses are getting to their 60s they are exhausted,’ said Mr Travis. ‘They are saying they want to go off and enjoy themselves. The emphasis has to be on the quality of employment.’

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