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Student Nursing (Finance)

Volume 603: debated on Monday 14 December 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

I am grateful for this opportunity to lead my first Adjournment debate on the serious issue of finance for student nurses and midwives.

I have a long-standing interest in the issues. I spent much of my career outside this place working for a number of charities to widen access to higher education and to tackle broader educational disadvantage. As deputy leader and cabinet member for health and wellbeing in the London borough of Redbridge, I became acutely aware of the challenges facing frontline staff and managers in both of the NHS trusts that serve my constituents in Ilford North. I am also a proud supporter of Unison and draw Members’ attention to my declaration of interests. I am grateful to Unison, the National Union of Students, of which I am a former president, and many other organisations for their assistance in drawing together the evidence for this evening’s debate.

With just a few lines in the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the biggest shake-up in the funding of nursing, midwifery and allied health subjects since the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968. By scrapping student bursaries and charging them tuition fees, the Chancellor is passing on the full cost of training to these essential frontline staff for the first time. The scale and potential consequences of his decisions merit further parliamentary scrutiny and public debate, and I hope that tonight will provide the first of many opportunities for that debate to take place.

Nursing and midwifery students currently pay no tuition fees for their studies and receive a non-means-tested grant of up to £1,000 and a means-tested bursary of up to £3,191 to help with the costs of living while they study and train. That is significant because students on both courses are required to work throughout their degrees in clinical practice, where they are subject to the full 24-hour care cycle. They work evenings, nights and weekends. Many will spend 60% of their degree doing that, with nurses required to work at least 2,300 hours across their degree. Even with the current levels of financial support in place, many struggle to make ends meet. Their courses are longer, their holidays are shorter and their placements are demanding. Those who do paid work outside their course can end up working more than 60 hours a week as a result, and they should not be expected to do so.

There has been a public outcry at the planned loss of the NHS bursary, but the Government’s plans go even further. Nursing and midwifery students will not only lose their grant and bursaries for maintenance; they will be expected to take out loans to pay for their tuition fees for the first time. These changes will burden students with eye-watering debts of at least £51,600, which they will begin to pay back as soon as they graduate, because nurses currently earn a starting salary just above the repayment threshold, which, shamefully, is now to be frozen at £21,000. As a result, nurses will on average take a pay cut of £900 a year to meet their debt repayments. That is no way for Ministers to treat the people who form the backbone of the NHS.

Given that the Government see fit to charge students for the cost of their tuition, will the Minister confirm whether he intends to pay student midwives and nurses for the hours they have to put into staffing our hospitals? If a private sector company tried to get workers to work long shifts and to pay for the privilege of working those long shifts while training, they would rightly be condemned. We should be no less outraged by what Ministers propose for nurses and midwives.

The impact of the changes will be felt beyond nurses and midwives; physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, chiropodists, podiatrists, radiographers, paramedics, prosthetists and other allied health professionals stand to lose out. We are not talking about the highest-paid people in this land; this assault on the living standards of key public sector workers is rightly causing outrage among NHS staff and members of the public who cherish the work they do on our behalf.

Given the scale and significance of the reforms, it is outrageous that the Government chose to sneak them out in the autumn statement. The Chancellor’s statement made an oblique reference to replacing

“direct funding with loans for new students”.—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1363.]

The policy decision on page 126 of the Blue Book merely says:

“Students studying nursing, midwifery and allied health subjects from September 2017 will be moved on to the standard student support system, with the details subject to consultation.”

As the Government have placed so little information in the public domain so far and higher education institutions and potential applicants are already turning their minds to the 2017 admissions round, I hope that the Minister can shed some light on the details this evening. Will he confirm that the Government will consult on the principle of the policy changes, not merely on their implementation? What is the full timetable for the decision from consultation through to implementation?

What analysis have the Government conducted of students in receipt of NHS bursaries for tuition and maintenance costs? Will they publish an equality impact assessment for the proposals? What research have the Government conducted into the financial hardship facing existing nursery and midwifery students and students of allied health subjects?

Why do the Government think it is fair that students from the most deprived backgrounds should have their grants taken away while some of the wealthiest people in our society receive tax cuts? How much of this debt do the Government expect to write off because those indebted by these reforms are unable to repay them in full?

Which Department will meet the cost of servicing the RAB—resource accounting and budgeting—charge for the student loan debt: the Department of Health or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? What are the Barnett consequentials for health education budgets in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where different arrangements are in place?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue before the House. I understand that 56,000 students on the mainland, including Scotland and Wales, may be in debt as a result of this change. In Northern Ireland, the Health Minister has committed himself to continuing the bursary. We are doing that in Northern Ireland; perhaps the rest of the United Kingdom should do the same.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. He rightly points out that this change will open up a postcode lottery across the United Kingdom, as its different parts choose to treat nurses and trainee nurses and midwives in different ways.

In the junior doctors dispute—the Government have belatedly seen sense and decided to reflect on their position—we faced the prospect of junior doctors in my constituency flocking to other parts of the United Kingdom because the situation there was more generous. With great respect to all the people represented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I want to keep in my constituency the talented trainee doctors, nurses, midwives and other health professionals living in my constituency so that they can serve my constituents when they work at King George and Whipps Cross hospitals. These are very serious issues.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and excellent points on the significance of nursing to the whole country. He might like to know that the students I have met in Scotland send a message of solidarity to their colleagues in England. They do not want to see bursaries cut, because nurses are under enough pressure as it is. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

I am very grateful for that intervention and I wholeheartedly concur with the hon. Lady.

Government Members may wear the NHS badge on their lapel, but they are quick to attack the conditions of NHS staff when it comes to taking difficult decisions. [Interruption.] They ask how I would fund it. When we were in government, even when we made changes to higher education student finance, we did not do this. We will take no lessons from the Conservative party on spending plans. It attacked Labour’s spending plans at the 2010 general election because we wanted to halve the deficit and it was promising to eliminate it. Then what did it do? It halved the deficit. When it comes to their record on spending plans, the Government are in no position to hector other parties.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is so devastating about these plans is that people from my constituency and from my background—I am a former Unison activist who looked after NHS staff—will not be able to go into the nursing profession? We are crying out for nurses and for people to fill the positions. The NHS has been burdened by the use of agency staff because the staff are not available. This policy will put people from my constituency off going into those positions.

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience. The Government should heed the points she makes.

I will turn to the other questions I have for the Minister. How will clinical placements be funded under the student loans system? The Government talk about the number of places they can expand, but it is not like expanding a history undergraduate course because occupational placements need to be arranged. The Government should explain how they intend to fund them.

Given the number of mature applicants for nursing, midwifery and allied health subjects, what assessment have the Government made of the likely impact of the reforms on applications from mature students? Are the Government at all concerned that applications from mature students may fall, given the detrimental impact that the coalition Government’s student finance reforms had on mature and part-time student numbers? Given that many people choose healthcare as a second degree and may not be willing to take on more than £100,000 of debt, how will the Government ensure that this route is not closed to such students? Have the Government conducted any evaluation at all that might give us a clue as to the extent of the risk that these reforms pose to recruitment?

The Government suggested in the spending review that half of all applicants to nursing courses are turned away. Do they have any evidence of what stage they are turned away at? If it is really the case that people are flocking to these professions, will the Minister explain why my local NHS trust has been so reliant on temporary and agency staff, including nurses who have been flown over from Portugal, to address the recruitment and retention challenges facing the NHS?

Additional allowances are currently available for students with different circumstances. Will the Minister inform the House whether any changes will be made to additional allowances, such as the extra weeks allowance or the dependants allowance? If so, what are those planned changes and what assessment have the Government made of their potential impact?

Given the press speculation over the weekend that the Government plan to increase the overall cap on university tuition fees, what assurance can the Minister give the House that students studying nursing, midwifery and allied health subjects will not see their tuition fees and debts hiked up even further than is being suggested? Given that the Government seem content to shift the goalposts for existing students and graduates, does the Minister really expect current or future students to believe that the terms and conditions they sign up to will not be changed and applied retrospectively further down the line? At the very least, I hope the Minister will confirm this evening that the NHS will continue to fund the tuition fees for existing students for the remainder of their studies.

When the coalition Government chose to increase tuition fees in 2010, the move was subject to a debate and a vote in this House. Given the media speculation that Cabinet Office Ministers are busy trying to find ways to avoid proper debate and scrutiny of a possible increase in the overall cap on tuition fees, will the Minister give the House an assurance that we will have a full debate and a vote should the Government choose to extend tuition fees to nursing, midwifery and allied health subject courses? Many students have already written to Ministers in the Department of Health and are awaiting a reply. Will the Minister commit to meeting student representatives to discuss their concerns?

It is not hard to understand why the Government’s shift in policy is generating so much concern and anxiety. In recent days I have heard representations from, among others, Unison, the Royal College of Nursing, the National Union of Students, the University of Hertfordshire, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. I have been contacted by student nurses and midwives in my constituency, and received messages of support for this debate from those in the constituencies of other right hon. and hon. Members.

Before I conclude, I would like to share with the House some of the stories that I have heard, and I will finish by making a few points about nursing and midwifery students. These are exceptional people and their dedication to others is truly remarkable. They work long hours, often in difficult situations, and they take a direct role in caring for patients when they are at their most vulnerable. Nursing students have told me how immensely challenging their work can be. They hold the hands of patients in their final moments, and comfort them as they pass. They are the face of reassurance to patients, and a bedrock of support for families.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I wanted to share my thoughts as someone whose son’s life, and whose own life, was saved by a student midwife. Does he agree that making those people not just work for free but even pay to save the lives of people like me and my son, is simply despicable?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to her for sharing her difficult personal experiences.

Nurses care for us in some of our darkest and most painful moments, and the weight of their responsibility carries with it a heavy physical and emotional load. The same is true for our nation’s midwives. One spoke of the difficulties that she faced when a baby was stillborn and she had to comfort the mother, while also taking hand and foot prints so that the parents would have memories of the baby they lost. She will never forget the shift when she spent 12 and a half hours with a mother who miscarried twins. She had five hours of rest, and then came back to do another 12 and a half hours with the same woman. She has supported the delivery of 10 babies, and she feels immense pride in being part of the wondrous moment of childbirth.

As the saying goes “Save one life and you’re a hero; save 100 lives and you’re a nurse.” These people are seeking to qualify into these difficult professions and form the NHS of tomorrow. They deserve our respect, admiration and support, as well as the right incentives to continue or even commence study in the first place. Ministers should listen to the students who are protesting, and to the nearly 150,000 people who have signed the petition to keep the NHS bursary. The Government owe it to patients and students to think their proposals through properly, and I ask them to pause this process. It would be a tragedy if the next Florence Nightingale or Edith Cavell were discouraged from the profession because of these changes. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that in the coming days, weeks and months, he will listen carefully to the voices of those who form the backbone of our national health service.

It is a privilege to respond to this debate, and the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) made a powerful speech. I know that he has experience and expertise in student finance. He was on the front line when we had discussions in this place some years ago, albeit outside the Chamber, and he brings passion and knowledge to this debate. He may feel that I am rehearsing points that he has heard previously, but before I address some of the specific and detailed questions that he rightly raised, I hope he will not mind if I run through some of the issues and reasons why the Government feel that this measure is the right thing to do at this time.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that nursing remains one of the few subjects not within the purview of the current student finance system. To our mind, the current system is not delivering as it should for either students or patients. Simply put, nursing is one of the most oversubscribed subjects in the whole academic range, and the fifth most popular subject that UCAS offers. Last year, there were 57,000 applicants for the 20,000 nursing places available.

I do not wish to go down the route of discussing NHS finance, because it will lead us to a place that is not easy for the hon. Gentleman’s argument and not particularly realistic. There is no way that any Government of any stripe would be able to offer a place to every single person with the necessary qualifications who wished under the current funding system to apply for a nursing place. The question for us is this: how do we change the system to give more people the opportunity to study nursing, and do so in a way that we are able better to supply the nurses and the nursing positions required in the NHS?

The hon. Gentleman asked a very important and pertinent question, which is why in his hospital, which I know from having gone there and from discussing this with him in other debates in this place, he should be seeing a shortage of filled nursing places. It is a function of parts of London that there are problems in recruiting—I was in Hull last week where they have a similar problem, albeit for different reasons—and yet there is an oversubscription for places. He could have added that we almost have a record number of nurses in training at the moment. So how does that add up?

Under the Government, we have seen a significant expansion in the number of nurses in the workplace. The response to the tragic events at Mid Staffs, the subsequent Francis report and the results of the Morecambe Bay inquiry led us to the conclusion that had eluded previous Governments: we needed safe staffing levels on wards that were not, in some parts of the country and in some hospitals, safely staffed. That required a significant increase in nursing numbers, which could be provided in the short term only by agency nurses. That is why we have not only increased the number of nurses in training—clearly, they take a while to come through—but have been required to take action on the cost of agencies taking advantage of the situation. That does not change the fact that it is simply not possible, within the current funding set-up, to satisfy either the demand for or the supply of nursing places.

There are other reasons. Even if we did not need to do something to get a better match between the number of nursing places and what the NHS requires and students want, I would want to push this reform. It is for that reason that I directly disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of student finance reform. I disagreed with him when we had this discussion in 2011, albeit not in this Chamber. If I may gently put it, I think those on the Conservative side of the House were proved right by those reforms. The simple fact is that we now have more applications from disadvantaged students to higher education than ever before in the history of higher education. We have seen a significant expansion in the number of students full stop going into higher education. Eighteen-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas were 72% more likely to apply to higher education in 2015 than they were in 2006. It has happened in precisely the opposite way to what he and his friends on the Labour Benches, when they were making the argument in 2011, expected to happen.

The Minister should look more carefully at what happened to mature student applications following the reforms—they plummeted—and think about the profile of the people applying to be nurses and midwives. Does he accept that the majority of loan debt will never be paid back, including by graduates who will earn far more than nurses?

I will turn to mature students, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will concede my central point. The significant majority of students going into nursing are doing so at an undergraduate point at 18 or 19 years of age. For that cohort across the rest of the higher education sector, we have seen the most spectacular expansion in opportunity than at any time since higher education was opened up more broadly to people after the second world war. That is something that Members on both sides of the House should celebrate. I know that those on the sensible wing of the Labour party also embrace the reforms and see why they were a good thing.

I disagree with many in the Opposition, but to be direct with the hon. Gentleman, I want to bring those advantages to student nursing. I want to expand the number of places available to people from all backgrounds to give them the opportunity to enter nursing, and I want to secure the advantages that come from bringing people from non-traditional and disadvantaged backgrounds into nursing, in the same way as we achieved in the rest of the higher education sector. I believe passionately in that. Even if the NHS and the students themselves—the 37,000 who applied but did not get a place last year—did not require this change, I would still be making it, because it is the right thing to do for those who otherwise would not have an opportunity. Under the new student financing arrangements, they will have that opportunity.

I wish to press the Minister on my hon. Friend’s point about mature students. In higher education, the number of mature students attending has now fallen by half. This is directly related to the current funding regime. The social mobility commissioner has cited education as the key vehicle by which mature people can achieve social mobility. How will the Minister prevent the number of mature nursing students falling as it has done in higher education?

I will turn to that point with pleasure, if the hon. Gentleman will give me a few minutes, because I have several things to say about mature students. I accept that this area of the proposals requires close attention, which is why I want to ensure that they are as robust as possible and that the consultation, to which the hon. Member for Ilford North referred, is as good as possible.

I want to answer the questions from the hon. Member for Ilford North about the consultation. We will consult on the full gamut of the reforms, but we will not consult on the principle, because that has been decided, as was outlined by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It is unfair to say he sneaked it out, given that it was made evident in his speech and was reacted to by the Opposition, as I know because I heard them. As for the timetable, the consultation will begin in January. We have not determined precisely when it will conclude, but it will be a full consultation. In significant part, it will look at how to ensure that mature students are supported, and I can confirm one element of it: we will allow mature students to apply for a second loan. Of course, that will account for only a small number of the cohort, but we will look at the impact of the changes on mature students, because they make up about a third of the cohort going into nursing.

I am a little confused by the Minister’s argument, which appears to be that by removing an existing advantage, he will create an advantage for more people to enter the nursing profession. Most people listening will find that slightly illogical, but he is not normally an illogical person. Would it not be sensible to do as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) suggested and have a proper impact assessment followed by a vote in Parliament, so that we can decide the right way forward, on the basis of that impact assessment?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I can tell him that an economic impact assessment and an equality impact assessment will be published with the consultation. I hope that that will begin to inform the debate. He might imagine that my proposition does not align with what he thinks the effect will be. I just ask him to look at what happened in 2011 when we did the same for the vast majority of other students, when Opposition Members put exactly the same arguments and warnings, and since when the precise opposite has happened.

The Minister is being generous in giving way twice, but we are not talking about what happened then; we are talking about a particular group that at the time was excluded from the provisions. He has not yet explained why he has now decided to include them in those provisions, other than by saying he is taking away an advantage that already exists.

It is simply because I wish to see the same advantages that accrue to those already on the new finance system accruing to those who are not. I want to see an expansion in the number of places and I want to see the effects of the changes made by the Office for Fair Access to university admissions in the rest of the sector applied to nursing, so that we see not only an expansion in the numbers of nurses being trained, but a broadening of the backgrounds of those going into nursing, exactly as has happened in all other areas of higher education.

I want to explain, I hope quickly, how this change forms part of a wider reform we are making in student access to nursing. The hon. Member for Ilford North framed his entire speech, understandably so, around the university route into nursing, but he omitted to reflect on the fact that the Government have stated that we will introduce an apprenticeship route into nursing to degree level—level 6. That will provide an alternative route into nursing, whereby nurses will be able to earn while they learn from healthcare assistant level all the way to a full nursing qualification at degree level. It will be possible for them to do so as mature students, which means it might take a bit longer, but they will be able to earn all the way from an existing job to gaining a nursing qualification—an innovation that should be welcomed on both sides of the House and which will mark a real expansion of opportunity for the current NHS.

Before I give way to the hon. Lady, I should also explain that there are many people working as healthcare assistants at the moment who do not have the opportunity to progress to a nursing position unless they leave the workforce to do so. That puts many of them in an impossible position, because they have families to support and other duties and responsibilities. For the first time, we have been able to give that group of people an opportunity to progress, through the apprenticeship route, to a full nursing position. That will expand the whole area of career progression to include one of the larger cohorts in the NHS workforce, in a way that no Government have previously been able to do.

I wonder whether the Minister can clarify whether people will be paid for doing that apprenticeship and, if so, at what rates they would be paid. He rightly referred to getting mature students with families into work, so will he also say whether that cohort will fall foul of the rule that people must be doing 16 hours of work, and not be in training, to receive the Government’s 30 hours of free childcare? It was made clear in the Childcare Public Bill Committee that those nurses currently studying would not be able to access the 30 hours’ free childcare because that would not be considered work. When they saved my life, it looked like work.

The hon. Lady speaks with authority from her own personal experience—I have noticed that recently she has spoken her mind without holding back. We are in detailed discussions with the Nursing and Midwifery Council about precisely how the apprenticeship route will work. The council is the independent regulator and has to certify that the qualification matches the existing degree/university route. The qualification has to have complete equality of both esteem and rigour. Of course we envisage the apprentices earning a salary. We envisage opening the route to existing healthcare assistants to give them the opportunity to progress to a nursing grade while continuing at a similar salary point as an apprentice. However, because the hon. Lady’s question about maternity care pertains to student nurses rather than apprentices, I will ensure that I write to her in detail.

The hon. Lady clearly sees why this is an idea with strength, so I hope that in asking her question she realises that there will be two routes into nursing: the university route and the apprenticeship route. I think this is potentially one of the most exciting innovations in the workforce of the NHS for several decades, because it opens up nursing to a whole range of existing workers who have not had an opportunity before, and provides a wholly different route into nursing, but with the same rigour and robustness that the existing university degree route provides.

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. It is clear that he really cares about getting mature students into these nursing training programmes. If the numbers fall as we go forward, will he come back to us and report on it, and will he pause any further reforms until that decline is halted?

I expect to be held account for this significant reform right the way through the changes that are envisaged. I hope to be able to return to provide good news about progress, as has happened in other student areas. That is why we want to be very deliberative about the way in which we form this consultation, because it is important to get it right.

I have taken note of the careful questioning of the hon. Member for Ilford North, who clearly understands the full gamut of the issues that need to be addressed in this consultation. Let me answer some of the questions he raised, and I shall write to him about any that I do not answer.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the funding of clinical placements. We have already started discussions with Universities UK about that, and it will form part of the wider consultations. The Barnett consequentials will be a matter for Her Majesty’s Treasury, as is the case for everything else connected to Barnett consequentials. I know that BIS officials are discussing the issue in the normal way.

The hon. Gentleman asked about research into financial hardship, and I know that that will form part of the consultation. The Government will be open to any further research beyond the economic impact assessment.

I was asked whether I would be happy to meet students. Of course I would. I have already met Unison and the Royal College of Nursing to discuss the changes I wish to make. I should not pretend to answer for them, but I have had productive discussions with both, especially about the apprenticeship route. I know that we will disagree with both Unison and the RCN about bursaries, but I think there is an understanding, particularly on the part of Unison, of how we are trying to open up different routes to nursing for different parts of the workforce. If we get it right, the apprenticeship model will be a strong one.

The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) made an important point in her intervention about agency nurses, so let me answer that as I am passing. As I alluded to earlier, part of the reason we are looking at that issue is to ensure that we provide a more sustainable workforce throughput, so that we do not need to rely on agencies and bank staff for the peaks in NHS demand. That is why we need to do something about numbers, and I hope that, as a result of the Chancellor’s announcement, we will increase the number by 10,000 over the course of this Parliament—a very significant increase in the establishment of student nurses. In fact, it will be the largest increase in student nurses under any Government since 1948.

I hope I have answered the majority of the questions put by the hon. Member for Ilford North—

Clearly I have not. I will allow him an opportunity to intervene once more, but I do not want to detain the House much longer.

I particularly welcome what the Minister said about treading carefully and thoughtfully around the consultation. The one issue he has not addressed, however, is whether extending the tuition fees regime to nursing, midwifery and other allied health subject students will be subject to a full and thoughtful debate followed by a vote in this House and the other place.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a definitive answer to that question yet. Let us wait and see the outcome of the consultation, so that the House can be best informed. I imagine that there will be ample opportunities in Backbench Business Committee debates and indeed Opposition day debates, and I know that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will want to bring these issues up for further debate. I will reflect the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Secretary of State and to the Leader of the House, and I am sure they will receive them with interest.

I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate, which has provided an opportunity for the Government to explain our plans and the rationale behind them. There will be points on which we will disagree, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will see the force of our arguments about wanting to expand the nursing workforce, to provide different routes into nursing and to provide the sort of opportunities to 18 and 19-year-old undergraduate nurses that have been extended to other parts of the higher education sphere. These are big proposals. They could mean a remarkable and rapid transformation of the NHS workforce, and a significant expansion in the number of nursing students. We need to get it right, and I hope that, through a constructive discussion across the House, drawing on the kind of expertise we have heard from Members in this short Adjournment debate, we will indeed get it right.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.