HL Deb 05 February 2003 vol 644 cc196-8

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What career protection they will provide for general medical practitioners, hospital doctors and consultants called up as reservists for the Defence Medical Services and how they will provide medical cover for the resulting National Health Service vacancies.

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

My Lords, the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 provides protection of employment for all reservists. In the NHS, employees, including consultants, and independent contractors, such as GPs, have entitlement, under contractual arrangements, to employment protection. Where temporary vacancies arise in the NHS as a consequence of call-up, responsibility for filling them lies with local NHS trusts and primary care trusts.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister and would also like to pass on birthday greetings to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal today.

I declare an interest in that I have a family member who may be affected. How will salary be paid to such practitioners—by the National Health Service or by the forces? If reservists are paid less by the forces than by the National Health Service, will there be a top-up? Will pensions be protected, so that there will be no loss of continuity for the National Health Service employee?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, if the reservist's military salary is less than his or her remuneration package at work, he or she can claim additional financial assistance from the Armed Forces. Reservists can elect to remain with the NHS pension scheme or opt for the Armed Forces pension scheme benefits. If the reservist opts for the Armed Forces pension scheme benefits, any employee contribution must continue to be paid from the reservist's military salary.

Employers are entitled to receive an award made up of three elements: one initial replacement cost, ongoing administration costs and the cost of essential retraining on demobilisation.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, more than 10 years ago, I received a letter from the Oxford health authority thanking me for my honorary clinical services but saying that, as I had reached the age of 70, I could visit the hospital for social reasons but not to use clinical facilities. Under NHS rules, hospital doctors are required to retire at 65 but may continue on short-term contracts until they are 70. GPs retire at 70. Would it not be wise to suspend those rules so that doctors who are able and willing to serve the NHS beyond the statutory retiring age can do so in the present potential emergency?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with that suggestion. We must avoid arbitrary age limits in the National Health Service and, indeed, elsewhere. I shall not mention Lords reform in that context. The department is considering such matters not only for doctors but for all people employed in the NHS.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, is it not the case that the number of doctors required in the Gulf is equivalent to two thirds of the number of current vacancies for doctors in the NHS? What evaluation has the Department of Health made of the effect of the possible loss of those doctors on the health service? What impact will that have on patients?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my understanding is that some 350 medical reservists have been sent call-up papers. Not all of those reservists work in the National Health Service; the term "medical reservist" covers other health professions and can also cover technicians.

The call-up of medical reservists may have an impact on individual NHS organisations, but I suggest that, as regards medical reservists, that impact will be fairly limited. Of course, we expect the NHS to do whatever is necessary to fill the gaps, but we are also determined that the NHS will play its part. Supporting medical reservists, when they are called up, is part of the responsibility of the National Health Service.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, have any reservists yet been called up for service in medical units because of the present situation in Iraq? The noble Lord will recall that reservists were the first to be called up, and were needed, in a similar situation several years ago. Have the present plans benefited from that past experience?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the answer must be yes. Clearly, reservists have been called out from time to time when our forces have been in action. As I said, 350 medical reservists have been sent call-up papers. That includes, doctors, nurses, other health professionals and associated support staff.