The government has offered to extend the NHS pensions scheme to staff transferred out of the service to make it easier for private firms to bid for NHS contracts.

But experts are split over whether the private sector will benefit from this part of the deal on pensions, put to health unions before Christmas.

Private firms are currently obliged to offer a pension “broadly comparable” to the NHS scheme under an arrangement known as the “Fair Deal”.

Private healthcare providers have led the criticism of the Fair Deal as disadvantaging firms that want to compete for NHS business, as their pension schemes are not government backed and so incur greater costs.

An independent inquiry into public sector pensions led by Lord Hutton last year called for the Fair Deal to be scrapped. A Treasury consultation which closed in June was widely expected to reach the same conclusions.

The government’s latest proposal would remove the obligation to provide a “broadly comparable” pension as all staff transferred under TUPE would retain access to the NHS scheme. 

NHS Employers director of pay, pensions and employment relations Gill Bellord told HSJ this would create “greater certainty” for staff.

But the deal would also force private providers to contribute towards the NHS scheme at a rate set nationally – currently 14 per cent of an employee’s salary.

Jean Sapeta of Hempsons Solicitors called it an “amazing” development likely to disappoint some private providers.

“The last thing they expected was access to the NHS scheme would be extended,” she said.

However, Andrew Rowland of solicitors Capsticks said: “Private sector providers will be jumping for joy. [The change] means they can give more competitive quotes in contract bids.”

He said on balance the change would create “more of an even playing field”.  The original Health Bill impact assessment illustrated the significant competitive advantage that the NHS pension scheme gave NHS providers, although this effect was downplayed in a revised assessment.

Under the Fair Deal, transferred staff can also move their accrued NHS pension benefits into the new scheme, through “bulk transfers”.

Mr Rowland said bulk transfers and the need to provide broadly comparable pensions cost providers millions of pounds when large groups of staff transferred to them.

But these costs would no longer apply under the new arrangement.

Announcing the offer, chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said: “The new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers and it is right that we offer workers continued access to them.”

A review of how the changes would affect staff moving to “any qualified provider” organisations will follow, Mr Alexander said.

As HSJ went to press, independent providers, including members of NHS Partners, were still assessing the deal.