(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Health why, in view of the shortage of nurses, hospital management committees in the North West Metropolitan Region have been instructed to stop recruitment until next March.
Nurse recruitment in the region exceeded all expectations and the Board believed that a temporary standstill, which does not apply to student and pupil nurse recruitment, was needed in order to contain expenditure within its budget.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many hospitals are still short of nurses and that this decision, coming only two months after the start of the campaign to recruit more nurses, is difficult to understand? Would there not seem to be something wrong with the Government's priorities, and is the removal of National Health Service charges more important than the recruitment of the necessary number of nurses?
Perhaps when I tell the right hon. Gentleman that in this region in the course of the last year the numbers of nursing staff as a whole have increased by 5·6 per cent., he will see why it is necessary to have this temporary standstill. I assure him that the necessity for boards to keep within their budgets is no more than a continuation of the policy which was adopted by the previous Government.
Would my right hon. Friend at least give an assurance that he will not impose a ceiling on those regions where the nursing services are still below what the local residents know to be adequate?
This Question relates to only one out of 15 hospital regions in the country. I have already explained that the standstill does not apply to student and pupil nurses. As for the publicity campaign, I assure the House that the response has been encouraging—indeed, so encouraging that it has proved quite a strain on the finances of some regional boards.
Is the Minister aware that this also applies in several other regions; that in Harlow New Town, for example, the hospital there cannot be staffed because he has placed a restriction on the number of nurses who can be employed and that at the new hospital a ward is standing empty?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not the correct position I have not placed a restriction on the number of nurses to be employed. These are priorities for the regional boards to determine. I merely fix the allocation of money for the regional boards.
Would my right hon. Friend make it clear that his statement does not apply to Scotland?
I did not think it was necessary for me to remind the House that I have no responsibility for the health services north of the Border.
Does the Minister recall the violent criticism which was expressed by hon. Members of his party when a similar thing happened under a Conservative Government? Would he say whether the increased recruitment in this region has brought the hospitals anywhere near to establishment?
Nurse establishment figures are not officially recognised. All I would say about this is that there has been a substantial increase in the number of nurses in this region, and I remind the House that over the country as a whole the total number of nurses in employment last March was the highest ever on record.
On a point of order. May I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to exactly why this particular Question was allowed as a Private Notice Question? It does not seem to many of us that it is of sufficient national importance to warrant this kind of preferential treatment. If this is to be used as a precedent, it would seem that many of us could put in Private Notice Questions to get preferential treatment when a Minister cannot be reached in, say, the next two or three weeks.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to explain the position. He must not be too intoxicated with his own undoubted success previously in calling attention to points of order. The simple answer is that the question of whether a Private Notice Question can be allowed rests entirely in the hands of the Speaker. If the Speaker in any way misuses that responsibility in the opinion of the House, then hon. Members have their remedy by putting a Motion on the Notice Paper.