Developing new routes into nursing is a priority for my Department, which was why last week I announced plans to train 12,500 new nursing associates through the apprentice route in the next two years and to increase the number of nurses we train by 25%—the biggest increase in the history of the NHS.
I welcome the fact that there are currently record numbers of nurses working in the NHS, but what is the Secretary of State doing to provide assurances to hospitals, such as the Alex in my constituency, that have faced issues with recruitment and retention? I very much welcome the new routes into nursing, including degree apprenticeships. What further actions does he propose to take?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Alex is going through a difficult period and I know that as the local MP she is giving it a lot of support. The fact is that in 2014 we turned down 37,000 applicants to nurse degree courses. That is why we think that we need to do much, much better in training a number of people who would make brilliant nurses. That was why we announced the big increase last week, which will help the Alex and many other hospitals.
University admissions departments have reported an 8% fall in the number of people accepted on to nursing courses this autumn, so the situation is getting worse, not better as the Secretary of State claims. What contingency does he have in place, in the event that we crash out of the European Union, to address a further haemorrhaging of European Union staff from the NHS, and when will he review his disastrous decision to abolish nurse bursaries, which has had such a negative impact?
Let us be clear: we took the difficult decision on nurse bursaries precisely so that we could have the biggest expansion in nurse training places we have ever had. When we had the higher education reforms in 2011, which the right hon. Gentleman’s party opposed, we also saw a drop in initial applications, but then we saw them soaring to record levels. That is what we want to happen with nurses, because we need more nurses for the Royal Devon and Exeter, and all the hospitals that serve our constituents.
I welcome the apprenticeship route and the associate nurse route into nursing because living on a bursary of £400 a month is no fun, believe me. However, will the Secretary of State look at nurse training so that when nurses qualify they are able to take on courses such as venepuncture and cannulation as soon as possible? Many student nurses and newly qualified nurses are frustrated that they cannot be used in those roles.
I will certainly look into that. Of course, my hon. Friend understands this issue better than many in this House. The really exciting change is that it will now be possible for healthcare assistants who could make fantastic nurses to progress to being nurses without needing to take out student loans because they will be able to carry on earning while they learn. That will open up big opportunities for many people.
Although we support moves to broaden access to nursing, these measures are effectively an admission that the scrapping of bursaries has been a disaster, but whatever recruitment strategies there are, the Government need to improve retention. The Royal College of Nursing recently reported that half of nurses surveyed said that
“staff shortages are compromising…care”.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that nurses can do their jobs properly right now?
The hon. Gentleman is right to bring that up. One thing we can do a lot better is to improve the opportunities for flexible working. We have announced that we will be making new flexible working arrangements available to all NHS staff during this Parliament. We are also expanding programmes to encourage people who may have left the profession to come back into nursing.
I think everyone would welcome an expansion of nurse training places, but the Council of Deans of Health stated in June that no new extra places had been funded either in universities or, crucially, in hospitals, where 50% of the course is carried out. Will the Secretary of State clarify when that funding will be made available?
Obviously we know that it takes quite some time to train a nurse, and one in 10 posts in England is vacant—that is twice the rate we face in Scotland. We also know that there is a 51% increase in nurses leaving the profession, a 96% drop in those coming from the European Union, and a limit on the use of agency staff, so where does the Secretary of State expect NHS England to find the 40,000 nurses it needs right now?
Let me just remind the hon. Lady that there are 11,300 more nurses on our wards than there were just four years ago, so we are increasing the number of nurses in the NHS. She mentions what is happening in Scotland. I gently remind her that nearly double the proportion of patients are waiting too long for their operations in Scotland as in England.
I support all universities that are trying to move into offering more courses that can help me to ensure that we have enough staff for the NHS. I am sure that the University of Gloucestershire’s bid will be powerful, but I am aware that other hon. Members are supporting bids from their own constituency—including, I have to say, that of the University of Surrey, which puts me in a somewhat difficult position.