HC Deb 15 December 1998 vol 322 cc755-7
17. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

What plans he has to facilitate the employment of refugee doctors. [62459]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

We are aware of the difficulties faced by refugee doctors and the problems that they can encounter when trying to secure appointments in the NHS. Overseas-trained doctors provide an invaluable contribution to the effective operation of the health service. I shall ask the advisory group on medical and dental education, training and staffing to consider the needs of this particular group of overseas doctors and make recommendations as soon as possible.

Mr. Gapes

I am very grateful for that reply. My right hon. Friend is probably aware of the important initiative taken by Redbridge and Waltham Forest health authority in setting up a group for refugee doctors, which includes people from Afghanistan and Somalia. The group comprises top medical specialists who, because of difficulties with regulations and the English language, cannot use their skills at present.

When the advisory group is established, will it liaise with Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment and the Home Office? It has been drawn to my attention that refugee doctors are experiencing difficulties with Home Office requirements and jobseeker's allowance conditions which make it impossible for them to practise their medical skills. Refugee doctors are told that they must work as shelf stackers, for example, when they have particular needs and want to help the communities in which they live.

Mr. Milburn

As my hon. Friend is aware, there are immigration and asylum rules, and it is important that doctors who are refugees to this country abide by them. However, the advisory group will consider a range of factors in making recommendations to me. It is also important to understand not only that concerted national action is needed in this area but that we should seek to build on the very good work that has been undertaken in my hon. Friend's area by the North Thames Deanery, the General Medical Council and local health authorities. They are seeking to provide better training for refugee doctors in order to facilitate their entry into the national health service where that is appropriate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

How does the Minister intend to meet his targets for the recruitment of qualified doctors for our national health service without being obliged simply to import them, a policy that he will know is vigorously opposed by the British Medical Association?

Mr. Milburn

In a number of ways. First, as was recommended by Sir Colin Campbell's committee, established by the previous Government, we shall increase the number of doctors in training. I can tell the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) will stop chuntering and start listening, we will make some progress. We are already ahead on the first recommendations of the Medical Workforce Standing Advisory Committee.

Secondly, we shall increase the number of doctors who return to the national health service. Hon. Members will be aware that nowadays many doctors leave the service, for example, to have a family. It is important that we put in place flexible, family-friendly employment policies to recruit those doctors back into the NHS. The Government are taking action on that issue; the previous Government failed to act at all.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is the Minister aware that doctors in oppressive countries very often end up as refugees because they protect the victims of torture and maiming, or that the refugee experience often destroys people's self-esteem? I have in my constituency an Iraqi doctor who was completely convinced that she could not pass the test, although her English was excellent, because her self-esteem had been destroyed by the torture that she had experienced.

If the Home Office delivers on its commitment to speed up asylum decisions, those doctors will be available to work more quickly. Does the Minister accept that it is therefore urgent to develop schemes such as those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), and that we need to get ahead in enabling those doctors to practice while they are in the UK?

Mr. Milburn

I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that refugee doctors who come to this country often face a host of problems. If they are admissible as refugees and if we want them to work in the national health service, it is obviously vital that we provide them with support and training to allow them to provide high-quality services to patients. There is a lot of very good local experience, such as that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, and we seek to build on that.