Pension rights halt at Scottish border: An NHS worker who returned to England found that her superannuation didn't. Andrew Bibby reports

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THERE is not one National Health Service in Britain but two, at least as far as pensions are concerned. As a result, Margaret Healy could lose a large part of her pension entitlement.

A brusque, four-sentence letter has just informed Ms Healy, a health visitor in her late thirties, that almost five of the eight years' superannuation contributions she has paid are 'serving no useful purpose'.

Like many other English nurses, Ms Healy chose to do her midwifery and health visitor training in Scotland, working there from 1981 to 1986 before returning to England. What she did not realise is that the superannuation scheme for the NHS in Scotland is administratively separate from the scheme for England and Wales. As a consequence, she failed to arrange for her years of pension membership in Scotland to be transferred to the English scheme. So her four years and eight months of pensionable service in Scotland may now be wasted.

'Pensions are not even portable within the same ostensible organisation, and the contributor is the last person to be informed. Nurses need to know that there are two independent schemes in operation,' she says.

In general, public sector employees are well served under transfer arrangements, colloquially known as 'the club', that enable them to switch from one public sector superannuation scheme to another whilst maintaining their full pension entitlement in the process.

A manager moving, say, from local government to the NHS is much better treated in this respect than someone moving between private sector companies.

However, NHS employees moving between Scotland and England do need to arrange for this pension transfer to take place. 'It isn't automatic. It needs to be triggered by the employee,' confirmed a Department of Health spokesman.

Ms Healy is particularly unlucky, since she worked in Scotland for just under five years. Under the rules that operated in 1986, this means that she fails to have any rights to a deferred pension (the threshold has now been reduced to two years). As a result, the Scottish superannuation scheme has told her that all it can do is to refund her employee's contributions, deducting both a national insurance levy to reinstate her into SERPS and a further income tax charge. 'I have been told that I will receive between one- third and a half of the contributions I actually paid. The employer's contribution is entirely lost,' she says.

Ms Healy says that she was not told that the NHS had two separate superannuation schemes, or that she needed to transfer her Scottish entitlement.

'It does seem strange to me they didn't tell her of her right to transfer when she joined the NHS in England. I find that very worrying,' says Glyn Jenkins, superannuation officer with the local government union, NALGO.

After the Independent contacted Martin Shearman, transfers manager with the NHS Pensions Agency for England and Wales, we were told that Ms Healy's case was being urgently reviewed and that it might, after all, be possible to transfer her full Scottish entitlement to her English pension. However, Mr Shearman pointed out that NHS staff in her position generally have to make their request for a transfer within one year; after that, any transfer is discretionary.

They will find that the necessary form, TV58, is not included automatically in the 'starter pack' given to new NHS employees, although transfer information is provided in an enclosed leaflet.

Mr Shearman says that he has no evidence that significant numbers of NHS staff moving to England from Scotland (or from Northern Ireland, which also has separate pension arrangements) have failed to complete the transfer form in time.

Margaret Healy hopes that common sense will prevail in her own case. Otherwise, her options are very limited. The Pensions Ombudsman is not normally permitted to investigate public sector pension disputes, though through a curious quirk in the rules he does have powers to consider English (but not Scottish) NHS superannuation disputes. He can however follow up cases of alleged 'maladministration' in any public sector scheme.

For Joe Robertson of the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service, Margaret Healy's case reinforces the importance of not taking a pension for granted. 'You just can't ignore pensions when you change job,' he says. 'The onus is completely on the member.'

(Photograph omitted)