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Volume 626: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2017

Developing new routes into nursing is a priority for the Government. That is why we launched, as the Secretary of State set out, both the new nursing associate role and the nursing degree apprenticeship earlier this year. They will open new routes into the registered nursing profession for thousands of people from all backgrounds and allow employers to grow their own workforce from their local communities.

My constituents welcome the manifesto commitment to expand the number of clinical staff for mental health. What more can my hon. Friend say about plans for mental health nurse training and how they will benefit dementia services, in particular, in my constituency?

Health Education England’s “Workforce Plan for England” for 2016-17 indicated an increase of more than 3% in the number of mental health nurse training places. It stated:

“The current level of mental health nurse training is the highest of any nursing branch as a percentage of the workforce it serves”,

which should allow for an increase of some 22% to more than 8,000 full-time equivalent staff members in the mental health workforce by 2020.

The fact is that when the Government chose to charge students record levels of tuition fees and scrap their NHS bursary, the Secretary of State and his Ministers were warned that that would lead to a fall in the number of applications, and what has happened since then? The number of applications for nursing degrees has fallen by 23%. Given that the Secretary of State has already acknowledged that we cannot continue our over-reliance on EU staff following Brexit, when will Ministers understand that the biggest challenge facing nursing recruitment is not our policy on the EU, but the Government’s own health policies?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that we continue to have a surplus of applicants for nursing degree courses in this country. The level of that surplus has fallen somewhat as a result of the change in funding structures. We shall have to see where it ends up, because at present universities are not recruiting directly outside the UCAS system, but we are confident that there will be more applicants than places this year by a ratio of some 2:1.

Does the Minister agree that there are opportunities for more mature students to gain access to courses easily, and that more work must be done with adult learning institutions to provide courses that allow such direct access?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the more mature workforce, particularly people resuming careers later in life—perhaps, in the case of women, after they have had children—is an important source of experienced professionals, and we need to do more than we have been doing to try to encourage such people to return to the workforce.