Nursing unions have written to health secretary Alan Milburn in protest at the low pay being offered to 'supernurses'.

Nurse consultants were expected to earn up to£42,000 a year at the top of a 15-point salary scale. But unions claim that 'the majority of posts have been assigned to the lowest pay points and that a significant number. . . are paying starting salaries of less than£30,000'.

The letter was sent in the same week as as the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that a government nurse recruitment advertisement was 'misleading' for claiming the average full-time nurse earns more than£20,000.

Announcing the first wave of 141 nurse consultant posts in January, Mr Milburn said: 'We have removed the glass ceiling on nursing careers.'

But the letter signed by Josie Irwin, staff side secretary of the nursing and midwifery staffs council, says: 'The feeling among nurses is that the pay scales advertised for consultant nurse posts look little different to grade I posts, which carry a salary of£25,770 to£29,205.'

Ms Irwin said nurses were disappointed at the low pay offered for the new posts. Trusts were 'stuck in the mode of thought that nurses are paid at one level and clinicians are paid at another', she added.

Unison head of nursing Karen Jennings said the 'expectation' had been that nurse consultant salaries would be 'about£40,000', which was 'an accurate level for what they do'.

But she said: 'Because trusts locally determine how much they pay, they are getting almost two for the price of one.'

Trusts had 'the duty to try to reflect the intention of the government's initiative', she said.

Unions claim low salaries are putting off experienced staff. A senior midwife told HSJ that she was 'surprised at the low number of applicants' for a consultant midwife post. 'A G-grade midwife doing shifts could earn the same.

Because the salaries are so low it devalues the image of the post.'

But NHS Confederation human resources chair Andrew Foster said trusts were delivering a large part of the government's intention to offer senior posts that retained a clinical focus. He added that the posts were 'developmental' and 'at their early stages'. Future waves of nurse consultants would be more senior, he predicted.

The Royal College of Nursing said it had calls from 'angry nurses' about the recruitment advertisement's claim that the pay of the 'average full-time qualified nurse' was over£20,000 a year.

The ASA agreed the line was misleading because the figure was arrived at by including allowances for out-of hours working and London weighting.

This echoed criticism by the Independent Television Commission, which upheld complaints about a TV version of the advertisement earlier this year.

The Department of Health said advertisements have been amended to make clear the figure includes allowances.

Welsh health and social services secretary Jane Hutt has backed plans for nurse consultant posts in Wales, which would 'help strengthen leadership' among nurses, midwives and health visitors.

One-stop job site The Department of Health has called for a 'one-stop billboard for all NHS vacancies' in England on the Internet. Junior health minister Lord Hunt said he hoped the service would be launched next spring as part of the NHS's wider recruitment and retention strategy. He claimed it would give staff more flexibility about where to work and 'in the long-term, save money that would otherwise have been spent on advertising in newspapers and magazines' .A feasibility scheme is underway. The NHS, Europe's largest employer with 1 million staff, spends£30m a year on advertising.