Starting out: Sue Cotterill a year after she qualified in 1974
Loyal practice nurses are missing out on thousands of pounds in retirement after being excluded from the NHS pension scheme for more than a decade.
The ‘injustice’ means that local GP surgery nurses, who have cared for the public their entire careers, will now retire with inferior pensions to their NHS colleagues.
Experts say the nurses, like Sue Cotterill may have been victims of gender discrimination, and are another example of how women lose out in retirement.
Today, Money Mail calls on the NHS and ministers to right this wrong and, at the very least, allow the nurses to make contributions for the years they missed out on.
The country’s first practice nurses began working in the mid-Eighties. They were brought in to take the strain off local doctors and by 1996, they had proved so invaluable there were 17,898 around the country. The vast majority were women. In fact, by 2015, just 149 of the country’s 18,335 GP nurses were men.
However, unlike GPs — who were typically male — they were prevented from joining the NHS scheme for over a decade as they were considered privately employed.
The nurses were finally allowed to join in 1997, but, by then, many had missed out on more than ten years’ investment in their retirement fund.
Meanwhile, GPs working at the same health centres had secured an agreement where they were considered NHS employees and able to pay in vital contributions.
Many of these practice nurses had been paying into the NHS scheme when they were district and hospital nurses.
And some say they were never warned that they could be denied better pensions if they moved to a GP practice.
Practice nurse Beverley Bostock, 58, has worked at GP surgeries in Coventry and the Cotswolds since 1984.
After qualifying in 1982, she collected two years of NHS pension contributions as a hospital nurse before becoming one of the country’s first practice nurses.
Now she says: ‘I live in great fear of being in penury when I retire. It felt very unfair the way they did things then. We were just completely excluded.
‘We were at the forefront of the general practice for nurses and we were penalised for that.
The problem with nurses is we get our heads down, grit our teeth and just get on with it. I cannot imagine doctors in that situation tolerating it.’
In 1997 practice nurses were eventually allowed to join what’s known as the 1995 NHS pension scheme, which allows them to retire at 60 and pays a final salary pension until they die.
But as well as their final salary their pension pay is also based on the number of days they were part of the scheme.
A GP surgery nurse, who retired on a wage of £35,000 after a 30-year career between 1986 and 2016, for example, would have missed out on 11 years in the NHS scheme.
Bitter pill: A GP surgery nurse, who retired on a wage of £35,000 after a 30-year career between 1986 and 2016, for example, would have missed out on 11 years in the NHS scheme
This means they would get a pension of £8,313-a-year — £4,812 less than the £13,125 they would have if they had always been allowed in an NHS pension.
This is a loss of more than £96,000 over a 20-year retirement. Jo Hamilton, 54, worked as a hospital nurse for four years before moving to a GP surgery in Dudley, in the West Midlands, and working as a practice nurse from 1989 to 2000.
She says: ‘We were young and probably a bit naive, and we didn’t realise the implications. It was never something pointed out to us.’
The married mum-of-three says the NHS should allow practice nurses to make backdated contributions to boost their pensions.
Had they been allowed, they would have paid 6 per cent of their salary into the NHS pension pot. She adds: ‘We should have the opportunity to get what we missed out on.’
Practice nurse salaries vary across the country, but the average is now around £35,000. GPs typically earn twice that — £70,000.
Former pensions minister Steve Webb says being cut out of the scheme was a ‘significant disadvantage’ and the nurses may well have been victims of discrimination.
He says: ‘Here is a group of women doing their best to look after people and, because of their role and their status, they have missed out what their seniors have got. You can be sure if they were more senior men, this would not have happened’.
Mr Webb, now director of policy at mutual insurer Royal London, adds: ‘There is a strong moral case for the Department of Health to allow these nurses to buy back into the NHS pension scheme for the years in question.’
Why DID this betrayal ever happen?
In the mid-Eighties, GP surgeries began recruiting nurses to help with minor procedures such as injections and dressings in a bid to reduce the strain on local doctors.
Many were excited to move from roles at hospitals or as district nurses to help develop local practices — but had no idea they would no longer be part of the NHS pension scheme because the surgeries were not technically run by the NHS.
And while doctors had negotiated a deal where they would remain eligible for the NHS scheme, nurses were not automatically given the same opportunity.
It was only in 1997 that nurses and staff, such as receptionists, were allowed to join in recognition of the work they did.
But by this point many had already missed out on more than a decade of contributions, which, as of yet they have not been allowed to backdate.
Another former pension minister, Baroness Ros Altmann, adds: ‘The people losing out will almost always be women.’
Jane Hughes, 62, will have worked for the NHS for close to 50 years when she retires in three years.
She was paying into an NHS pension as a district nurse for 14 years, before she started work in a practice in Dudley in 1991. But she says she only found out a year later that she had been cut out of the scheme.
The married mother-of-one says: ‘It is unfair. We just accepted it at the time; never questioned it. We should have what we are entitled to.’
Rachel Fung, 59, has been a practice nurse in Dudley since 1988, but faces a smaller pension because of the nine years she was excluded from the NHS scheme. She says: ‘I have worked really hard and feel a bit aggrieved.’
Sue Cotterill, 65, has retired on an NHS pension of around £1,100 a month — despite nursing for 45 years.
Sue had wanted to be a nurse since she was a child, qualified in 1974 and worked in hospitals for around 12 years. She says she was the first practice nurse in Dudley, starting in 1986 and working until retirement aged 61 in 2014.
Sue, who lives with husband Mark, 58, and their two German Shepherds, says: ‘Nurses were quite hard done by.’
Loyal: Sue Cotterill, a nurse for 45 years
She adds: ‘It’s feels so unjust. Nobody ever told us moving from a hospital to a practice would affect our pensions.
‘It was not until you started talking to other practice nurses you realised you would not be contributing to the NHS pension.’
The Department of Health says practice nurses were admitted to the NHS pension scheme in 1997 ‘in recognition of their crucial role in assisting’ GPs.
But a spokesman adds: ‘In order to protect the pension contribution rates for existing members of the NHS scheme, it is not possible to allow these staff to backdate their pension.’
Dr Richard Vautrey, GP committee chair of the British Medical Association, says: ‘The BMA was instrumental in securing the agreement for practice nurses to join the NHS pension scheme in 1997.
‘We believe it’s only right that those who have worked for the NHS for many years are not penalised for choosing to care for patients in the community and that the Government addresses the ongoing disparities.
‘The NHS has always depended on hardworking GP practice staff, with practice nurses and other support staff working alongside GPs meeting the day-to-day needs of patients.
‘However, for far too long staff working in community settings have not shared the benefits of the NHS pension schemes in the same way as colleagues in other parts of the health service. Bringing an an end to this inequity is long overdue’.
A Royal College of Nursing spokesman says it was concerned to hear some GP nurses ‘may not have been properly informed’ about their pensions.