HL Deb 19 June 1996 vol 573 cc316-8

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to guarantee the necessary finance to train an additional 500 doctors by the year 2000 in view of the impact upon university medical schools brought about by the 28 per cent. cut in their funding over the past six years and the further 5 per cent. cut for teacher training imposed in the last budget.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the allocation of funds to individual universities for the training of doctors is the responsibility of the higher education funding councils of England, Scotland and Wales, and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. The funding bodies are taking into account the target increase of 500 additional medical undergraduate students, having consulted universities with medical schools about intakes. The universities will be more than half way to meeting the target in 1996–97. The further increase of about 230 would need to be phased in over the following three years.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that there is grave concern in the majority of universities catering for the training of doctors? They feel sure that they will not be able to fulfil those numbers by the year the noble Lord mentioned. Funding is inadequate. There is a fall in student numbers because of the reduction in the amount of money they can claim. Is it not diabolical that the Government are cutting back on the numbers of doctors to be trained to work in the National Health Service at the beginning of the next century?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I simply do not accept the noble Baroness's allegation that student numbers are falling. We have seen an increase in medical students of 11 per cent. from 4,470 to 4,970. That is well on course. As regards drop-out rates, the rates throughout the whole of higher education are relatively low. I have no evidence on drop-out levels for medical students. However, my advice from the CVCP and the Higher Education Funding Council for England is that they are probably lower than average.

As regards the concerns highlighted by the noble Baroness, being the Minister for Education in this House I am more than well aware of the concerns put forward by the CVCP and the higher education fraternity. We are listening very carefully to their concerns. We have set up a couple of working groups with them, and we will take into account all those concerns in the current spending round. However, the Government have to take into account the wider considerations, such as the burden on the taxpayer and the need to control public expenditure.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Calman Report includes a recommendation for a tremendous amount of additional training for medical staff? Although that will have financial implications, the Government are well set on the route of bringing in all that additional medical training.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for highlighting that point. We have seen quite a dramatic growth in the number of doctors working in the NHS over the past few years, from something of the order of 67,110 in 1979 to 82,680 in 1994.

Lord Winston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in spite of what the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, maintains, there is very serious worry throughout the medical profession, upheld by the various presidents of the Royal Colleges, concerning the level of medical staffing—particularly if the Calman recommendations are to be implemented? It has been calculated that we shall need a 30 per cent. expansion at consultant level if we are to train and also treat patients at the same time.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am grateful that the alleged shortage of medical staff is not so severe as to keep the noble Lord away from this House today, yesterday and on other days.

Noble Lords


Lord Henley

Obviously, my Lords, I am aware of those concerns. But we have increased the numbers of trained doctors quite dramatically and are further increasing the number of medical students. We are well on target to meet the increase of 500 by the year 2000.

Lord Winston

My Lords, for the Minister's information, I am a university employee. Is he aware that, were it not for the fact that universities maintain so many people like myself, the National Health Service would collapse?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will take a bit of gentle teasing in good part. If he does not, I shall be more than happy to withdraw my remark. I am also grateful that he pointed out the contribution that universities make to the health service. That is why we fund the whole of higher education to the extent that we do. Some £7 billion of taxpayers' money goes towards higher education. That is a very considerable sum indeed.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I am sure that we on these Benches accept that what the Minister said was in the spirit of gentle repartee, although at the time it did not quite seem like that. Does the Minister accept that those of us who have spent many decades in university work are aware that clinical academic staff in universities spend over half their time treating patients and are also engaged in research? Has he read the letter to Sir Michael Thompson, chairman of the CVCP Medical Committee, from his honourable friend, Mr. Eric Forth, dated 5th June in which he says that, the higher education budget funds the cost of teaching medical undergraduate students … In this sense there is not a direct link between the two. I understand that, to date, the Department of Health has not received any evidence from the NHS that patient care has been affected by recent unit cost cuts in higher education funding"? Has the Minister ever heard anything more callous and unfeeling?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I totally reject the suggestion that the letter from my honourable friend was either callous or unfeeling. The noble Lord comes to this House with a great deal of experience of the higher education sector; others in the House have similar experience. Many put forward demands of a reasonable or less reasonable sort for yet further funding. As I made clear, in very difficult times we provide something of the order of £7 billion of taxpayers' money for higher education. That has to be considered in the context of £35 billion overall spending on public education in this country. Those are very considerable sums. Very difficult decisions have to be made about allocating them. We believe that the medical side of higher education receives its fair share.