The number of hospital doctors Jeremy Hunt’s pension gift could help has been called into question, after new figures revealed just 100 of them left the NHS last year due to voluntary early retirement.
Criticism has grown over the move announced in the budget, which would remove the tax of up to 55% on life pensions worth just over £1m and raise the annual allowance threshold to £40,000 sterling to £60,000.
Despite claims that it would only benefit the super-rich, the Treasury suggested the move would help the NHS retain staff.
On Wednesday, Hunt said he had “heard the concerns of many senior NHS doctors, who say unpredictable pension tax charges are causing them to leave the NHS just when they are most needed.”
He added: “I don’t want any doctor to retire early because of the way pension taxes work.”
But instead of offering the tax break only to doctors, as Labor has called for, Hunt said “the problem goes beyond doctors” and that “no one should be thrown out of the workforce for tax reasons.”
According to statistics, the number of hospital doctors who have recently left the NHS who may have been prevented from doing so is barely in the triple figures.
Just 105 of them left the NHS for voluntary early retirement in 2021/22, according to information provided by junior health minister Will Quince. The figure was 561 among nurses and 20 health visitors.
In addition to the 8,191 NHS employees whose reason for leaving was “unknown”, the top recorded reasons given for those leaving the NHS were reaching the end of a fixed-term contract, reaching retirement age or relocating.
Tax expert Professor Richard Murphy of the University of Sheffield said it appeared ministers did not have the data to back up their claims.
He said: “If they don’t know how many doctors retire for this reason, why did they change the pension policy so that everyone kept 105 doctors on the NHS?
“It seems they used the fact that they know doctors are leaving for this reason to provide a pension plug for the rich.”
Murphy added: “They don’t have an evidence base for this policy, and that’s good enough to say it can’t have been because of retiring from NHS doctors.”
Daisy Cooper, the health spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, said many employees had left due to burnout or better pay elsewhere. “Sadly, this movement alone does nothing for low-paid nurses, health professionals and other dedicated NHS staff, who have been working to exhaustion in dilapidated hospitals,” she added.
The pensions gift was also called “the most expensive sledgehammer I could have imagined” to “crack a nut” by Lisa Nandy, the shadow Labor secretary.
“We accept that there is a problem with the doctors,” he told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.
“But there are fairer and better ways to deal with that problem than simply handing over a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money to fund a tax cut for the top 1%, 84% of whom are not doctors.”
A senior cabinet minister admitted on Sunday that he did not know how many public sector workers would benefit from the abolition of the life pension.
Oliver Dowden, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said that “it tends to be a lot of public sector workers who are affected by this cap.”
The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has forecast that 15,000 people will remain in the workforce as a result of the much broader pension changes, but not many are expected to be doctors.
Hunt was well aware of the problem of NHS doctors’ pension contributions when he was an MP. Last June, the multi-party health select committee he chaired called it a “national scandal that senior medical staff are being forced to reduce their employment contribution to the NHS or leave it altogether because of NHS pension arrangements.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care suggested that 22,000 senior NHS doctors could surpass the previous annual allowance of £40,000 by 2023/24, and that around 31,000 doctors had reached at least 75% of the lifetime allowance. of £1,073 million.
The spokesperson added: “Increasing the annual allowance to £60,000 and abolishing the lifetime allowance will offer tax-free annual pension savings and unlimited pension savings over a full career.
“These measures will also ensure that NHS doctors are not discouraged from staying in their roles and working overtime, allowing them to treat as many patients as possible and address delays.”