Nurses are pushing Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to find up to £15m to fill a black hole in their regulator's accounts.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) needs a government grant of £13m to £15m if it is to avoid increasing professional registration fees from £100 to £120 next year.
Nurses and midwives can practise in the UK only if they are registered with the NMC, but the fee hike comes after the profession suffered a real-terms pay cut of 8 to 12 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The majority of nurses won't receive a 1 per cent pay rise rolled out across the wider public sector this year.
Last year, the Government handed over £20m so that the NMC, which makes sure that nurses do their jobs properly through fitness to practise hearings, increased the fee from £76 to £100 a year rather than £120.
The NMC has just completed a consultation into a further increase, which must be approved by its governing council in October. Industry sources insist the NMC won't be able to carry out its investigations into nurses accused of failing to protect the public without either a fee hike or a government grant.
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said the Government should intervene. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said that nurses could "struggle to find the money" for the rise. Cathy Warwick, chief executive at the Royal College of Midwives, said the NMC was "handicapped" by rules that do not allow the regulator to resolve its investigations quickly and cheaply.
NMC chief executive Jackie Smith said: "Part of the council's considerations would include, among other things, the need to consider reducing the number of fitness-to-practise hearings we hold if we are to find further savings. The council will have to balance the financial constraints of nurses and midwives against the need to ensure that the NMC is able to fulfil its statutory duty of protecting the public."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Last year, we gave the NMC additional funding which has protected nurses from the full fee rise for two years. Any decision on future fee rises will be made by the NMC."