At a glance: obscure rules, poor information, punitive taxes

by Jennifer Trueland

Erroneous pension statements have forced doctors to become adept at accountancy as well as medicine 

Location: UK
Published: Friday 8 July 2022
practice general

When medical students decide to take an intercalated degree one of the provisos tends to be that it’s in a subject related to medicine.

Yet today’s doctors may well be wishing they could turn back the clock and instead go for a qualification in accountancy – in very, very specialised accountancy at that.

The revelation last month that nearly 3,000 members of the NHS pension scheme had been sent erroneous pension statements is a reminder that the wise doctor should be keeping a close eye on all aspects of their pension.

The mistake – which the NHS Business Services Authority acknowledged – was reported on Twitter by NHS pensions expert Graham Crossley, who had spotted that a pension with estimated growth of £33,000, with no annual allowance charge, was instead down as £77,000 growth carrying a £16,000 annual allowance charge. Other specialist accountants then added similar instances that they had spotted in their clients’ statements.

The problem, however, is not only that such specialist accountants are thin on the ground (and rightfully charge for their expertise) but also that the whole topic of pensions still doesn’t figure on the radar of a lot of doctors. In this case, there was a clear operator error, but in other instances, many of which have been reported in The Doctor, the stunningly high pension tax bills have been entirely accurate, although completely unsuspected by the recipients.

And who can blame them? It seems that on top of doing the day job and all the medicine-related ‘stuff’ that goes along with it, doctors are now expected to be experts in their own pensions – pensions that are not private arrangements, but that are part and parcel of their work for the NHS.

In many cases a lack of reliable information also makes this much harder. The BMA has been pushing for the NHS Business Services Authority to improve the information available to doctors with their pension savings statements, but even an online portal – promised two years ago – which might go some way to addressing this lack has not yet materialised.

This all means that individual doctors are having to spend precious hours of their spare time poring forensically over their earnings and their potential pension tax liabilities to try to avoid making costly mistakes – to prevent the ridiculous situation that in some cases they are paying more in tax than they are actually earning.

It’s not easy. Whether it’s debating whether or not to take on that extra session, or to turn down that additional responsibility, to accept a clinical excellence award, or even to cut hours or take early retirement, it’s another pressure that frankly doctors could do without.