HC Deb 29 February 2000 vol 345 cc152-3
10. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

If he will make a statement on the number of NHS acute hospital beds and staff to support them. [110862]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

The latest figures show that there are 108,000 acute beds in the NHS. We are currently consulting, through the national beds inquiry, on how we can best secure an increase in the number and the type of beds. Crucial to that are increases in nurse and doctor numbers. Both are rising under this Government.

Mr. George

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does he not accept that under successive Governments, Secretary of State hospital bed numbers have declined by 2 per cent. a year since 1980, even though patient numbers have increased by 3.5 per cent. a year? The problem is not of the Government's making; but does he accept that, rather than the Government going ahead with the 1p in the pound tax cut, the British public would rather see that money spent on the national health service?

Mr. Milburn

We are spending more money on the NHS—a damn sight more than the Liberal Democrats promised in their manifesto at the previous general election—but we need to reverse a 30 or 40-year decline in the number of beds in the whole system. Given the demographic pressures and our ageing population—we have seen this winter some of the pressures that they cause in hospitals—the Government want to expand services in the NHS. That is what we are about and my strong view is that the decline in hospital bed numbers cannot continue. That is not only a question of getting the number of hospital beds right, however. We have to make sure that there are enough beds in the whole care system and we are committed to achieving precisely that.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the serious problems and pressures in north-east London? In particular, I draw his attention to the recent letter from the chief executives of the Redbridge trust and the Redbridge and Waltham Forest health authority to the NHS London regional office, urging additional beds for the King George hospital site in my constituency.

Mr. Milburn

I am aware of the pressures in my hon. Friend's area and in other parts of London, too. The answer, as Christine Hancock of the Royal College of Nursing rightly said recently, is not only an increase in the number of beds. We can get beds on any high street, but we cannot get trained nurses. It takes time to train the nurses, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we are beginning to turn the corner as regards nurse shortages. There are 4,500 more nurses in the NHS now than there were a year ago. That is good progress. There is still some way to go, but the signs are positive.

We have more nurses coming back in and more nurses in training, and the number of people applying for nurse training courses is increasing. Those are all positive signs. We shall continue to build on them, but to achieve an increase in capacity in the system we also need to reform the way in which people work. It is very important that we allow nurses to take on new roles. That, in turn, will help to make nursing, midwifery, health visiting and the therapy services, which are so important to the NHS, even more attractive careers.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State acknowledges that the 15,000 nursing vacancies have such a disastrous impact on acute bed capacity. Given that the Royal College of Nursing estimated that there were 12,000 departures from nursing last year, is not the Secretary of State's claim to have turned the corner, with the equivalent of 3,000 full-time new recruits, a bit like the Home Secretary's over-optimism about the number of extra police officers?

Mr. Milburn

No, the hon. Lady obviously has not been listening. There are not 3,000 full-time equivalent returners; there are an extra 3,000 nurses working in the national health service—that is the full-time equivalence. There are 4,500 extra nurses. Many of them are taking advantage of precisely the sort of flexible employment that we are opening up to nurses, so the total full-time equivalence is fewer than 4,500: it is 3,000— [Interruption]—as I have just told the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), if he would care to listen.

We are making progress, and frankly we shall take no lectures from the Conservative party, which reduced the number of nurses and, more importantly, cut the number of nurse training places. Never was there such a short-sighted policy in the NHS, and we are beginning to turn it around.