HC Deb 10 December 2002 vol 396 cc147-8
8. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

What recent discussions he has had with governments of sub-Saharan African countries about the import of their skilled health service workers into the UK. [84327]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

The recruitment of staff for the national health service is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and his Department.

Nevertheless, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, in October 2001, the Department of Health published a code of practice for NHS employers who are involved in the international recruitment of health care professionals. The publication provides a detailed explanation of the processes that must be carried out when recruiting from overseas to ensure that those developing countries suffering significant staff shortages of their own are not targeted.

Dr. Harris

Surely the Minister understands that his Government's view that this is simply a matter for the Department of Health shows that there is an unethical black hole in the middle of their foreign policy. South Africa, which has already requested this country not to recruit its hard-trained nurses and doctors, has seen the number of its staff recruited by this country increase from 393 in 1997 to 2,114. As for Malawi, 43 out of the 235 nurses that it trains per year are now working here. Surely foreign Governments have told him and his colleagues that that is unacceptable. Until the Government keep an exact record of the extent to which we are destroying the capacity of foreign countries' health care systems, and offer to put something back, we will not be behaving ethically in this area.

Mr. Rammell

With the greatest respect, to describe that as an unethical black hole is exaggeration even by the standards of Lib Dem "Focus" leaflets. We are firmly committed to ensuring the protection of developing countries. That is why we have developed the code of practice, in which we are ahead of the game—no other country throughout the world has done that. On what the hon. Gentleman says about putting something back, through the Department for International Development, we invest £30 million a year, 30 per cent. of which goes into the South African health system.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

It is, however, possible, as my hon. Friend will accept, to provide proper training and assistance to African nations while not denuding them of desperately needed staff. Real problems exist in southern Africa, particularly in relation to those groups affected by AIDS, and it is essential that they are not deprived of their health care professionals.

Mr. Rammell

My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point. AIDS is the scourge of southern African. Through the Department of Health, we have constructive programmes that we are developing with the South African health department. We will do everything that we can to help. On the specific issue that has already been raised, the code of conduct offers the best protection available for the recruitment of health care professionals from developing countries.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

This is truly disingenuous. The national health service does not have to recruit these nurses, because they are recruited by agencies. If the Minister wants to see hell on earth, he should visit the Lilongwe general hospital where practically every nurse who was trained last year was stripped out to come to work for agencies in this country. The Minister's answer was accurate but totally disingenuous.

Mr. Rammell

Agencies and organisations working with the NHS have to comply with the code of practice that we have established. We take the issue seriously, and we would all want to operate in an ideal world. The fact remains that the code of practice that we have already established is the most advanced in the world. The Government will not apologise for the fact that we are expanding our capacity in terms of the number of nurses in a way that the Conservative party consistently failed to do.

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