§ 6. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)
What assessment he has made of the level of nursing shortages; and if he will make a statement. 
§ The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)
From the various figures and sources available, I estimate that there are around 9,000 nursing vacancies in the national health service that have existed for three months or more. As the hon. Gentleman knows, on 1 February we launched a major recruitment campaign. Since then, more than 52,000 people have contacted the national response line. Around 5,000 of them were qualified nurses asking about returning to nursing. Nurses who have to go on refresher courses and return to the NHS will have their fees paid by the NHS; those who have already done so will have their fees reimbursed, including his constituents.
§ Mr. George
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that clarification. The Royal College of Nursing estimates that there are between 12,000 and 13,000 nurse vacancies and believes that nurse shortages rather than flu epidemics created the winter crisis. What steps will he take to encourage experienced nurses—the backbone of the NHS—to remain in nursing and not leave the NHS at the present rate?
§ Mr. Dobson
The RCN certainly produced estimates different from those of officials of the NHS and my Department. When I last appeared before the Health Committee, I said that I would authorise my officials to get together with people with other estimates so that we can agree how many vacancies there are and not have futile discussion about numbers rather than doing something about it. We are trying to recruit extra nurses. It looks as though the campaign is successful. We are also trying to introduce family friendly policies so that services are available for nurses who want to be able to take their children to school in the morning, take them home in the evening or need a creche so that they can take younger children to the hospital or community service with them. We are determined to bring that about. That applies not only to nurses, but to everyone who works in the NHS because it must provide a top-class service for patients while allowing its hard-working staff to reconcile their jobs with their family responsibilities.
§ Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS trust, which held open evenings at the Crawley and East Surrey hospital sites attended by 165 people? Ten at Crawley signed up for the back-to-nursing course. They are delighted. There is clearly a new view about nursing and people feel invigorated that they are getting back into the profession that they love.
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend, speaking from her experience as a qualified nurse, offers me 849 some reassurance. In other parts of the country, besides the national initiatives that we have taken, local nursing managements are conducting a variety of initiatives to attract people back. It looks as though they are working. I have recently visited several hospitals with nurse returners. When I asked one why she had come back, she said that her children had reached the stage where it was quieter at work. She was working in the intensive care unit.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)
The NHS cannot afford to lose any competent and qualified nurses. I certainly applaud the steps that have been taken to follow up the Opportunity 2000 initiatives. The NHS was the first public sector body to join Opportunity 2000. We had a debate yesterday on the Macpherson report. In 1993, the NHS set a target for the number of black and ethnic minority G grade nurses. What further steps are being taken to ensure that we do not lose the skills of public sector workers in the NHS from the black and ethnic minority communities?
§ Mr. Dobson
I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is bad if we lose trained nurses from the health service. When we got in there were 140,000 qualified ex-nurses no longer working in the NHS, the odd one or two of whom, I have reason to believe, left when the right hon. Lady was Secretary of State for Health.
We are doing a lot more than any previous Government about the recruitment and retention of black and Asian staff. One of the biggest problems is that, when one says to Afro-Caribbean young people, "Will you think of taking a job as a nurse in the health service?" they say, "Not if they're going to treat me like they treated my mum." We have to deal with that. We are setting examples in so far as we can. The only appointments that I make in the NHS are of non-executive directors. I am proud to say that since we got in we have raised the number of women on the boards to 50 per cent. and the number of black and Asian people to 10 per cent.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that anyone with an ounce of common sense is highly delighted not only with the recruitment campaign that he has mounted, but with his serious acknowledgement that there is a problem with nurses and nurse retention? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will abandon any idea of introducing schemes for discretionary payments for nurses? We know that within the NHS such a scheme for doctors is unfair, inequitable and expensive.
§ Mr. Dobson
I am not entirely clear what my hon. Friend is referring to. We have certainly set our faces against the idea of performance-related pay in the NHS. We want to relate pay mainly to responsibility. With—I think—the likely agreement of the profession, we intend to get rid of the rigid grading system that is holding back the professional development of nurses and holding down their pay.