HL Deb 07 October 2002 vol 639 cc7-9

2.52 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are encouraging doctors and surgeons from abroad to practise in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, as part of our implementation of the NHS Plan, Her Majesty's Government are encouraging doctors to come to practise in the United Kingdom to increase the number of healthcare professionals working in the National Health Service.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. What are now the necessary qualifications in medicine, surgery and knowledge of the English language? Has the Minister seen the report—and is it correct—that recently arrived French and German medical teams have returned to their countries owing to misunderstandings, although their contributions and expertise were needed in this country?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, in order to practise in the UK, a doctor needs to be placed on the medical register by the GMC. With regard to a person with a primary medical qualification from outside the European economic area, the GMC is required by law to satisfy itself that that person has the necessary knowledge of English. EC law prevents the application of such a requirement to people qualifying in the EEA. But there is a responsibility on NHS employers to ensure that any person whom they appoint knows sufficient English to do the job properly.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is really the "sticking-plaster" policy for the NHS? Does he believe that scouring the world for doctors, who may be badly needed in their own countries or, if they are not, will cost us disproportionately, is the way to go? Would it not be better to invest in staff here, retaining the nurses who are leaving at the moment so that operating theatres can be kept open, investing in education and training, and tackling the overload on all staff, so that the NHS is better placed to keep their services?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that seems to me to be an extraordinarily negative analysis of what we are doing in the NHS. There is a gap to be filled over the next few years because disastrous decisions were made by the previous government in relation to training places for doctors and nurses. We have taken decisive action to increase dramatically the number of such training places and have put in place recruitment and retention strategies. Those are beginning to pay off. However, in the meantime, it is surely right actively to recruit doctors and nurses from countries which have a surplus of such professionals to come to help the National Health Service.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government are concerned that, under the EU directive concerning the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, a doctor could practise here for 16 weeks per year before being required to register with the General Medical Council, which is the point at which a previous problem with a doctor may come to light?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the draft directive proposed by the European Commission. The Government have concerns on a number of aspects of that directive. We are making representations in Europe and, of course, shall seek to ensure that, at all costs, patient safety is paramount.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, if South African doctors who practise in this country want to have further training to become surgeons, do they experience problems and how long does it take them?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we certainly want to ensure that doctors who already practise here are eligible for help towards more specialist training. However, so far as concerns South African doctors in general, we have an ethical code. We do not actively recruit for the National Health Service nurses or other medical professionals from countries which need them for their own health services. However, of course some South African doctors practise in this country, as do doctors from other countries. Overall, through various schemes we are seeking both to recruit doctors to this country and to increase the number of medical and specialist training places in order to meet the targets set out in the NHS Plan. But we shall take a flexible approach in considering where improvements need to be made and in picking up the type of issue raised by the noble Baroness.

Lord Winston

My Lords, what numbers of junior doctors are required in the Government's estimate, given the shortening of working hours in line with European practices?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not have a specific figure relating to the increase in the number of junior doctors as a result of the Working Time Directive. However, we are expanding the number of medical school places by 1,000 on top of the 1,100 already announced. We also stated in the NHS Plan that by 2004 we shall have 1,000 more specialist registrars. With those increases and with the efforts made by individual NHS trusts to change and reform working practices, we are confident that we can meet the demands and pressures being placed upon us by the Working Time Directive. However, it will of course take a considerable number of years to implement the changes fully.

Earl Howe

My Lords, how many doctors have been recruited from abroad since the publication of the NHS Plan?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we have established a number of schemes in relation to recruiting doctors. The global recruitment campaign that we launched in August 2001 has resulted in more than 5,000 expressions of interest. Following that, 1,977 firm applications were received, and 705 have been sifted and considered suitable for employment in the NHS. We are now in a matching operation between those considered suitable for employment and individual NHS trusts. Various other schemes have come into operation. A series of French GPs have started work in south London and by the end of March next year we expect their number to reach 23. So far as concerns the international fellowship scheme, 26 offers of appointment have been accepted and we expect the majority to be in post by the end of the year. We also have evidence of four clinical teams who have started work in the NHS.