HC Deb 24 October 2000 vol 355 cc120-3
10. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

What action he is taking to increase the number of nurses working in the NHS. [131857]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper)

The NHS plan sets out proposals to increase the number of nurses, midwives and health visitors in the NHS by 20,000 in the next four years. That is why we are expanding training commissions; improving pay; supporting international recruitment; encouraging family-friendly working practices; and encouraging more staff to return to the NHS.

Mr. Bradley

I welcome that response, which will be welcomed also in The Wrekin and in constituencies across the country. However, can the Minister explain what action she and her colleagues are taking to recruit—and, crucially, to retain—other professional and technical staff? Would not such action help, and is it not time that such staff were included in the pay review body arrangements?

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend will be aware that discussions on the future of the pay system are under way. We believe that, across the board, the pay system needs to be modernised to provide fair and affordable settlement across the NHS and to support expansion of the NHS. There were already 10,000 more nurses in place in September 1999 than there were in September 1997, and there have been other increases in the work force, too.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I should be pleased if the Minister could tell us what conversations on recruitment and retention she has had with the Royal College of Nursing since July, and what tangible progress has been made. Although some of us were interested to hear the Secretary of State say—rightly—that under-capacity is holding back development of the NHS, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons recently said that it would take 10 years before those problems were properly and adequately dealt with. Will it take 10 years before we get the recruitment and retention of nurses right?

Yvette Cooper

Christine Hancock of the Royal College of Nursing is on the NHS modernisation board, and continuing conversations are being held on recruitment and retention. There has also been much progress on nurses, such as the fact that, in the first two years of this Parliament, we have put in place 10,000 additional nurses. Considerable progress still needs to be made, but it will take time. One of the reasons why it will take time is that the previous Government cut the number of nurse training places: that is what has made it so difficult to get in place the additional nurses that we need.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

May I, too, offer my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker?

Will my hon. Friend put further pressure on health authorities and trusts actively to examine their working patterns and shift rotas so that nurses who want to return to work are if possible offered the flexibility that they need to combine their work and family responsibilities?

Yvette Cooper

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that we are very keen to increase family-friendly working practices across the NHS. That is why we have a £30 million child care initiative to support staff across the NHS. The Government strongly value the important contribution that people, especially women, can make when combining careers in the NHS with family responsibilities—unlike the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who recently said: It is a fact that you will get less work out of females than out of males.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

When Christine Hancock, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said that We now have the evidence that the key nursing posts are being downgraded to save money, was she telling the truth?

Yvette Cooper

Given that the previous Government cut the number of acute beds in the NHS by 43,000 between 1979 and 1997, it would hardly be surprising if the number of specialist nurses had fallen during that period. We are committed to increasing the number of nurses in the NHS, not just by 20,000 across the board, but by expanding the number of senior nurses, including nurse consultants. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that an extra 141 nurse consultants will be appointed.

Dr. Fox

I take that rather second-rate evasion to mean that, yes, Christine Hancock was telling the truth. I wonder when Ministers will start to take responsibility for the health service, more than four years into their term of office. [How. MEMBERS: "Four?."] They are well into their fourth year, and were they to be in office for 40 years, they would still be harking back to the Conservative Government. Is it not true that the 15,000 nursing vacancies and the 12,000 nurses who leave each year are a testament to the Government's failure in office? Is not that compounded by the lack of morale generated by the Government's endless political interference; the lack of authority for ward sisters; the lack of vaccine for patients; the return of TB to our cities; and a winter crisis that now goes on all year—all of it under a Prime Minister who says that Labour never understood the size of the problem? How can nurses, or anyone else, have any faith in a health policy that is such a complete shambles?

Yvette Cooper

Given that the hon. Gentleman is clearly so sensitive about looking back at the previous Government's record—for example, the cut in nurse training places from 15,000 to 11,000 in two years and the failure to restore the figure to the previous levels under the previous Government—perhaps we should look to the future. The Government are already increasing the number of nurses in the NHS. We have a commitment to expand the NHS and to invest additional money, year on year, in increasing the NHS—[Interruption]

Mr. Speaker

I cannot have the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) shouting across at the Minister. He asked a question; the hon. Lady is answering it.[Interruption.] She may not be answering it to his satisfaction, but she is answering it.

Yvette Cooper

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman has said that he wants to spend more than £500 million on subsidising private health insurance and more than £300 million cutting the tobacco tax against which his party voted. We have set out where we would find the extra investment needed to expand the NHS. I should like to know where the hon. Gentleman would find the resources to make that cut.