Nursing remains a strong career choice, with more than 22,500 students placed during the 2017 UCAS application cycle. Demand for nursing places continues to outstrip the available training places.
Figures from the Royal College of Nursing show that applications have fallen by 33% since the withdrawal of bursaries. At the same time, the Government’s Brexit shambles has led to a drastic decline in EU nursing applications. How many years of such decline do we have to see before the Secretary of State and the Minister will intervene?
What matters is not the number of rejected applicants, but the increase in places—the number of people actually training to be a nurse. The reality is that 5,000 more nurses will be training each year up to 2020 as a result of the changes.
The NHS already has 34,000 nursing vacancies. Given that there has been a 97% drop in nursing applications from the EU and that studies show that nearly half of all hospital shifts include agency nurses, will the Minister at least admit that cutting the bursary scheme has been a false economy for our NHS?
It is not a false economy to increase the supply of nurses, which is what the changes have done. Indeed, they form part of a wider package of measures, including “Agenda for Change”, pay rises and the return to practice scheme, which has seen 4,355 starters returning to the profession. More and more nurses are being trained, which is why we now have over 13,000 more nurses than in 2010.
I respectfully remind the Minister that this is about recruitment and retention. The RCN says that we can train a postgraduate nurse within 18 months, which is a significant untapped resource, so why are the Government planning to withdraw support from postgraduate nurses training, too?
We have a debate involving postgraduate nursing tomorrow, but the intention is to increase the number of such nurses by removing the current cap, which means that many who want to apply for postgraduate courses cannot find the clinical places to do so. That is the nature of tomorrow’s debate, and I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber.
Will my hon. Friend, on top of the degree nursing apprenticeships, rapidly increase the nursing apprenticeship programme so nurses can earn while they learn, have no debt and get a skill that they and our country need?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to signpost this as one of a suite of ways to increase the number of nurses in the profession. As he alludes to, there will be 5,000 nursing apprenticeships this year, and we are expanding the programme, with 7,500 starting next year.
This weekend, I had to take a poorly member of my family to Cheltenham General Hospital, and the skill, concern and good humour of the emergency nurse practitioners were fantastic. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Cheltenham’s emergency nurse practitioners? Does he agree that we should be doing everything possible, through their pay scales, to reward and retain them?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the nurses at Cheltenham, and elsewhere, for the work they do. As he says, that is exactly why this Government, with the support of the Treasury, have backed nurses with a big pay rise in the “Agenda for Change” programme.
With every reputable independent body showing very clearly that we have a staffing crisis in the NHS nursing profession, can the Minister explain how cutting bursaries actually improves the situation?
I am very happy to do so. We are removing the cap on the number of places covered by the bursaries and increasing the number of student places by 25%, which means that there will be 5,000 more nurses in training as a result of these changes.
The Secretary of State’s removal of the nursing bursary and introduction of tuition fees have resulted in a 33% drop in applications in England. In Scotland, we have kept the bursary, a carer’s allowance and free tuition, which means that student nurses are up to £18,000 a year better off, and indeed they also earn more once they graduate. Does the Minister recognise that that is why applications in Scotland have remained stable while in England they have dropped by a third?
The hon. Lady speaks with great authority on health matters, but, again, she misses the distinction between the number of applicants and the number of nurses in training. It is about how many places are available, and we are increasing by 25% the number of nurses in training. That is what will address the supply and address some of the vacancies in the profession.
Workforce is a challenge for all four national health services across the UK, but, according to NHS Improvement, there are 36,000 nursing vacancies in England, more than twice the rate in Scotland. The Minister claims that more nurse students are training, but in fact there were 700 fewer in training in England last year, compared with an 8% increase in Scotland. The key difference is that in Scotland we are supporting the finances of student nurses, so will the Government accept that removing the nursing bursary was a mistake and reintroduce it?
The distinction the hon. Lady fails to make is that in England we are increasing the number of nurses in training by 25%; we are ensuring that nurses who have left the profession can return through the return-to-work programme; and we are introducing significant additional pay through “Agenda for Change”. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, we are also creating new routes so that those who come into the NHS through other routes, such as by joining as a healthcare assistant, are not trapped in those roles but are able to progress, because the Conservative party backs people who want to progress in their careers. Healthcare assistants who want to progress into nursing should have that opportunity.
When defending the decision to scrap bursaries, the Secretary of State said that, if done right, it could provide up to 20,000 extra nursing posts by 2020. Well, that figure now looks wildly optimistic, with applications down two years in a row. Is it not time that Ministers admitted they have got this one wrong and joined the Opposition in the Lobby tomorrow to vote against any further extensions to this failed policy?
If Members vote against the policy tomorrow, the reality is that they will be voting for a cap on the number of postgraduate nurses going into the system, and therefore they will be saying that more people should be rejected—more people should lose the opportunity to become nurses—because they want to have a cap that restricts the supply of teaching places.