I am grateful to Andrew Selous for asking this urgent question. It follows a Westminster Hall debate two weeks ago on this issue, when Members from across the House raised concerns about the Government’s mismanagement of the interaction between their pensions relief policies and the NHS pension schemes.
The worst-case scenario that we all feared has become a reality. Hospital leaders are raising the alarm that waiting lists for routine surgery have risen by up to 50%. Unless this issue is dealt with, there is a risk that the approach of the end of the financial year will lead to even greater levels of working to rule after the summer.
The changes that have led to these issues relate to the interaction of the taper, which George Osborne introduced in the summer Budget of 2015, with other rules on tax reliefs and the three NHS pension schemes. Despite decisions being taken around these measures some time ago, there appears to have been next to no communication by the Government with representative groups about this issue until the crisis had already begun. That is very different from the “constant review” that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has just referred to.
It is fair that tax reliefs should be consistent with other core principles of taxation, and that the pension allowance should decline progressively for those people who earn high incomes. However, at issue here is the interaction of that system with the NHS pension schemes, on which the representative organisations maintain they were not properly consulted. Many consultants are only now becoming aware of their liabilities. I asked two weeks ago, and I ask again, whether the Government believe that their communication with those affected has been sufficient? Furthermore, does the Chief Secretary to the Treasury believe it is acceptable that many of those affected have not even received pension statements in a timely manner, due to delays by Capita? Surely that is only exacerbating these problems.
The Government have maintained—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury did this again a moment ago—that this issue will be solved by the 50:50 pension option proposed in the NHS people plan released last month. However, a number of representative bodies have already expressed concerns about this option. So my third and last question to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is: what discussions has her Department had with the Department of Health and with those representative bodies about the 50:50 scheme? It has been painfully clear from the Westminster Hall debate, and again this afternoon, that there has been an abject lack of co-ordination across Departments on this issue.
I am sure that many of us are concerned about the lasting impact of today’s crisis. NHS staff retention is already poor. This issue is one of many affecting dedicated senior staff, with large numbers raising concerns about levels of stress and a general lack of resource. A whole variety of Government failures is driving these retention problems. Today’s crisis is likely to add to this, with confusion over pension relief pushing many to retire earlier than they previously would have done, or encouraging some to opt to take on additional private work. I am concerned not only for those consultants but for their patients. There are currently 100,000 NHS staff vacancies; that is one in 11 of all NHS posts. This latest failure will see yet more delays for people in desperate need of care, unless the whole of this Government, working together, get a grip.