I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Physician associate is a new profession. Physician associates are clinically trained to be able to work across several disciplines. For example, they can work in A&E, with GPs and in gynaecology. It is something that is very necessary in today’s modern world: we need more specialist generalists, which is exactly what physician associates are. Indeed, it is often a second career, making the profession very popular.
We currently have some 2,000 physician associates. Some are in training, while some are actually practising. With that number of them, it is only right and responsible for any Government to regulate, because without regulation, we do not have the safety that members of the public really deserve. The Bill will regulate this much-needed profession that will give great support to doctors across primary and secondary care. Indeed, even the Government have committed to introducing regulation.
I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. As she says, this important industry is growing in prominence. One of the most interesting things about the Bill is that it will provide greater protection against those who wilfully and falsely pretend to be physician associates. Will my hon. Friend talk more widely about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful comments. When I get a little further into speech, I will indeed talk a little about that, time permitting.
The previous Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that he wanted 1,000 new physician associates in training each year, and the current Secretary of State said on 12 October that he wanted to push forward with legislation to regulate physician associates. It therefore seems to me that there is no divide between what I wish to achieve with the Bill and what the Government say that they want to achieve, so I certainly hope to get Government support for the Bill. If minor—or even major—amendments need to be made, that can happen in Committee. If the Government feel that they really want to get behind the Bill, they could adopt it and give it Government time. That would be welcome.
Why is the Bill so important? Regulation would ensure the necessary competence, accountability and safety of care provided by these healthcare professionals. It would provide legal authority and accountability, which is not currently there. It would provide a valuable framework for patient safety.
At the moment, professional standards are set by the Royal College of Physicians and the Faculty of Physician Associates underneath it, but they do not have the force of law. We need to ensure that those standards, which set standards of behaviour, guidelines for competence, educational requirements and conditions to ensure fitness for practice, are legally binding.
We also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) set out, need to protect the title of physician associate. We do not want people holding themselves up as physician associates, which they can do now, if they are not properly trained, educated and qualified to work in the role, because they have considerable levels of responsibility.
If we are to enhance the professional credibility of this group of professionals, as the Government and I wish to do, we need national recognition of the role. That is what the Bill would provide.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward her Bill. Does she agree that any regulation must not do anything to prevent people from taking up the profession of physician associate? She and the previous Secretary of State have spoken about its importance, and the current Secretary of State agrees, as do the devolved Assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Physician associates are employed to fill many jobs in the national health service across the United Kingdom. Does she agree that regulation, which I am sure we all back in principle, must not in practice put anybody off taking up the profession which, as she said, is vital?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I would say that the Bill will make the job more attractive. The reality is that physician associates cannot fully take on the role that we need them to take on because they cannot prescribe and they cannot authorise X-rays, which they would be able to do if they were regulated. That is an important next step. The Government would like physician associates to be able to do such things so that the workload burden on general practice and those working in A&E is reduced.
I want to press my hon. Friend on whether she thinks the Bill might lead to savings that we could reinvest in the NHS because it would allow these people to do more within the regulated profession she is seeking to create.
I think that the Bill will increase the attractiveness of the profession and the variety of professions that individuals can go into. It will also free up resource for those who are, so to speak, more specially qualified, such as general practitioners and anaesthetists. I think it is more about increasing resource than necessarily about money, although that is very important.
If physician associates were regulated, matters that are important to all members of the public and to Members of this House could be legally enforced—that is crucial. It would also ensure that we had a more diverse workforce and the variety of people that we need.
Of course, the most important thing to bear in mind is that this is about not replacing doctors, but enabling them to do the specialised tasks that only they are able to do and to pass down to others roles that those individuals can quite competently fulfil. The concern has been raised that by having these professionals regulated alongside doctors by the General Medical Council, we might put them into competition with doctors. I reject that concept because we have a shortage of doctors and we need as many individuals as possible to be medically qualified. It is therefore the right thing to do.
That brings me to a brief comment, before my time elapses, on why the GMC should regulate physician associates. It should do so because physician associates work very closely with doctors. They perform very similar functions and work under their supervision. They need to be regulated by a body that truly understands them, in the same way that nursing associates came under the Nursing and Midwifery Council when they were regulated. It is very important that these individuals are held to the same standards and that there is alignment across the piece in how they are educated. The GMC has a long history and wealth of experience in regulating doctors, so I think that it is the right body for this purpose. I sincerely hope that the Government will support the Bill and I commend it to the House.
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 23 November.