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Working Time Directive

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2009

13. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the European working time directive on NHS staff. (300151)

All NHS staff, with the exception of doctors in training, have been compliant since 1998. In 2004, working time provisions were extended to doctors in training whose maximum hours were reduced to 56 hours by August 2007 and 48 hours by August 2009.

The Royal College of Surgeons said in January this year that we simply do not have the surgeons in the UK to fill the gaps created by the working time directive. Does the Minister agree that it is wrong to put at risk the work of local trusts, including the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the safety of patients and the career aspirations of those who wish to become surgeons by her Department’s lack of proper planning for the implementation of the working time directive?

I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady. The working time directive is health and safety legislation, and there is strong evidence that tired doctors make mistakes, so reducing working hours to 48 will of course improve patient safety. I know that the Norfolk and Norwich university hospital is looking at its anaesthetic rota and coming to an agreement on it. There has always been a tradition in surgical training that needed to be addressed. The most recent survey of medical education for those in training has shown that this training is now better and safer.

Given that at the last count, only two thirds of junior doctors were compliant with the European working time directive and 77 trusts have had to request a derogation from the directive, and in the light of the fact that the Secretary of State himself does not have to comply with the directive that his own party has forced on our doctors, what action are the Minister and the Secretary of State taking to bring forward the long-delayed review of junior doctors’ training to ensure that doctors’ skills and training—and, ultimately, patient care—do not suffer as a result of the Government’s failure to negotiate an opt-out?

I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman one thing—this Labour Government and this Minister have no intention ever of returning to the long and dangerous hours that all our doctors and surgeons used to have to work, because I actually worked with those doctors at the time. Any one of them would tell the hon. Gentleman how serious that practice was, as mistakes were made. Along with the medical education authorities, the British Medical Association and all the Royal Colleges, we take patient safety very seriously. The report that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will be looked at and we will report back on it, I believe, early next year.