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Agency Staffing Expenditure

Volume 609: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2016

We have taken tough measures to control unsustainable spending on agency staff, which cost the NHS more than £3 billion last year. Overall agency spend is now falling and we expect to save the NHS at least £1 billion this year as a result.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. I do not share his optimism. Is not the real problem the shortage of permanent staff and the budgetary constraints on the acute sector? Most of them are now below establishment.

I think the hon. Gentleman is right that we have historically not trained enough staff to work in the NHS and been over-optimistic about the staff needs. That is why, in this Parliament, we will be training over 11,000 more doctors as a result of the spending review, and 40,000 more nurses.

In the Public Accounts Committee, which I sit on with the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), we have repeatedly come to this question about agency staffing. The key thing is, as he says, that the establishment level for acute hospitals is always under par, because the budget set from the centre is never enough to meet it. Will the Secretary of State go and take a serious look at this issue, and stop this myth that it is just down to the rates paid? That is part of the problem, but it is not the main problem.

Perhaps I can give the hon. Lady some comfort. I recognise that there is a big mountain to move, but the changes we made last year were not just about changing the rates paid to agencies. They were also about capping the amounts agencies can pay their own staff, because we think it is incredibly divisive inside hospitals to have two nurses doing exactly the same work, but one being paid dramatically more than the other. We are also capping the total amount hospitals can spend on agency staff. The result is that the monthly spend on agency staff is now falling and we are on track to reduce the agency bill by about £1 billion in this Parliament.

Spending on agency staff has gone through the roof under this Health Secretary, and the Secretary of State’s attempt to deal with the symptoms of the problem but not the cause has left hospitals struggling to get staff at rates they are allowed to pay. In the past few weeks we have seen reports of emergency surgery suspended in Doncaster, an A&E department downgraded in Chorley and two critical care units closed in Leeds, all because of staff shortages. The Health Secretary has admitted that this will be his last big job in politics. May I urge him before he goes to get a grip on the cause of the staffing crisis? Otherwise, it will be patients who will be facing the consequences long after he has gone.

May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for his generous congratulations earlier, and indeed for making history himself by being the first Opposition Member I can remember to congratulate the Government on hitting a target?

I say to the hon. Lady that, as a result of the measures we have taken to deal with the agency staff issue, we think we have saved £290 million compared with what we would have spent since last October, two thirds of trusts are reporting savings and the price paid for agency nurses is 10% lower than it was in October. The root cause of the problem is, as the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) said, our failure in the past to recruit enough staff. One of the reasons for that is that successive Governments failed to understand the needs of nursing in wards, which is why we had the problem at Mid Staffs. Because we are addressing that, we are now able to make sure that we do not pay excessive rates for agency staff.

If I may turn to another part of the staffing crisis, all Opposition Members welcome the resumption of talks on the junior doctors contract. It is in no one’s interest—not the Government’s, not junior doctors’ and certainly not patients’—for this dispute to drag on any longer. May I implore the Health Secretary to do all he can to find a reasonable compromise this week that will keep doctors in the NHS and ensure that we have a motivated, well trained and fairly rewarded workforce to continue to deliver the excellent care we all want?

I thank the hon. Lady for her reasonable tone and absolutely give her that assurance. We have always wanted a negotiated outcome to this dispute. That is why we paused the introduction of the new contracts last November to give talks a chance to succeed, and it is why this week I have said we will further pause the introduction of the new contracts to see whether we can get a negotiated outcome. We want a motivated workforce and we are highly cognisant of the fact that hospitals that offer seven-day care and higher standards of care for patients are the very hospitals that have some of the highest levels of morale in the NHS. It takes two to tango, and I very much hope that the British Medical Association will play ball and its part this week in helping us to deliver a safer seven-day NHS.