HL Deb 25 February 1992 vol 536 cc165-7

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

How long it will take to clear the estimated backlog of 35,000 appeals from nurses against their grading.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, we have emphasised that we wish to see clinical grading appeals at all levels heard quickly and fairly. The procedure under which those appeals are heard is a matter for the Nursing and Midwifery Staffs Negotiating Council which is working towards an agreement on streamlining the appeals, and which should significantly speed up the process.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Does she agree that the position does not sound very hopeful, bearing in mind that at present there are 1,400 appeals waiting at national level and that last year only 87 appeals were heard by that appeal panel? Is she aware that at least 10,000 of the appeals are expected to come up to national level? Can the Minister tell me how long the process will take?

Secondly, if nurses win their appeals, and the money is backdated to April 1988, the sums can vary from £5,000 to £10,000, but those nurses who are successful in their appeals will have been deprived of that income for a period of four years. Will the Government consider paying interest on that money?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the regional health authority chairmen estimate that up to 13,900 appeals may be awaiting employing authority level hearing. That is the first level of appeal. At 31st January of this year 23,416 appeals were lodged at regional level and 1,609 at national level. At regional level 3,124 appeals have been heard and 97 at national level of which 28 per cent. and 38 per cent. respectively have been successful. There is no way of predicting how many appeals will be made as decisions on whether to bring an appeal are taken by the staff side of the organisation.

Back-pay, which may be appropriate on the success of an appeal, is a matter for the regional health authority in each case.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the effect on morale among nurses of this appalling wait as a consequence of the Government's cock-up? (I believe that is a parliamentary term). Does the noble Baroness accept that the fact that there are fewer nurses recruited this year is partly due to their dissatisfaction with the Government's cock-up?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, on the latter point there is no general shortage of nurses at present. The number of nursing and midwifery staff in England at September 1990, in whole time equivalents and including agency staff, was 402,100. That represents an increase of 2.6 since September 1981. The small drop in the number since September 1989 of 3,200 whole time equivalents reflects the transfer of many senior nurse managers to the general senior manager pay structures.

On the question of who is responsible for the delay and the backlog of this appeal system, I have to say that the staff side of the negotiating council is largely responsible for not having got its act together.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a Member of another place who was then a Minister, and to whom I am not unrelated, had twice to apologise for using the phrase which was used twice in the same supplementary question by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will follow the action of the person not unrelated to my noble and learned friend in this case.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, it is a great relief that we are responsible for our own order rather than the situation in another place.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the nursing appeal process has been so slow that some applicants have died and their relatives have received a posthumous capital sum? Will the Minister confirm that the total cost of the appeals procedure is likely to exceed £30 million? Will she also say why there is no final appeal to an arbitrator if at national level of appeal there is a failure to agree?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, we do not collect centrally information about the total cost of appeals. I am not prepared to accept the noble Lord's figures.

On the procedure, since the general Whitley Council arrangements have shown themselves to fail time and again through their very cumbersome procedures, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has agreed to revoke the appropriate Section 32 of the Whitley Council procedures so that in future the appeals will be dealt with much more rapidly by an independent body appointed at local level. The streamlining procedure to which I have referred is to deal with the backlog of appeals. The future certainly looks rosier.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether the problem is nationwide or concentrated in certain regions?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the figures vary quite considerably from a high of 2,822 in the North Western region to 615 in Oxford and East Anglia. However, I note that the South West Thames region, for example, has set itself a deadline of two years to clear up its appeals, which currently stand at just under 1,000.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the noble Baroness clarify an answer she gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, in relation to the possibility of interest being charged on quite large sums of arrears? She appeared to state that it was a matter for the regional health authorities. Do the regional health authorities have such power? Would it not be unfair if some authorities paid interest and some did not?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I shall look into that point. However, it is worth remembering that basic pay rates for nursing staff are up by 43 per cent. on average in real terms since 1979.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that the regrading is being done with extreme care and although it takes a lot of time it is very valuable? Does she recollect that in the 1970s, when the university technicians were regraded, almost every lead-swinger won his case to the fury of his hardworking colleagues?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. We have always made it quite clear that we want appeals to be heard both quickly and fairly.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the question that I asked the Minister at the beginning. The figures quoted by the Minister and myself were fairly similar subject to one or two small differences. There are already 1,400 appeals waiting at national level. It is nice to hear that efforts are being made to speed up hearings of appeals at the lower level. Only 87 appeals—as I claim; the Minister referred to 97 appeals—were heard last year. Even if no extra appeals are added, it will take 14 years before we get through the existing appeals. We cannot expect the nursing profession to put up with that.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as I said, the delays are the result of the cumbersome three tier system that has operated. I have also quoted the example of the South West Thames region which has set itself a deadline of two years. That means that its backlog will be completed by 1994.