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Nurses: Employment In Nhs

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 15 February 1984

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2.52 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the number, if any, of state registered nurses and state enrolled nurses who, have obtained their qualification, cannot find employment in the National Health Service.

My Lords, the information which the noble Lord requests is not available centrally. There may be some local difficulties, but no serious problems in newly-qualified nurses finding jobs have been brought to our attention.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his reply, but is he aware that there have been reports or spasmodic instances where nurses, having completed their training, have been unemployed for a short period? That situation is causing some concern, and does the noble Lord not agree that this is a matter which the DHSS should look at?

My Lords, nurses have never been guaranteed posts on the completion of their training, and there has always been the need for a certain amount of mobility among newly-qualified staff. It is the case at the moment that more nurses have to move from the localities in which they train to obtain posts. I ought to tell the noble Lord also that a good proportion of recorded unemployment in nursing occurs among people whose availability for employment is somewhat restricted. They include, for example, those seeking to return to the nursing service after a break in their careers. As nursing is basically a female occupation, family ties also produce problems, of which the noble Lord will be aware.

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister accept from me that there are scores of nurses at present in Westminster Hospital who will be completing their training in June and July of this year, and that they spoke to me no more than 48 hours ago telling of the fears they have that when they do complete their training they will then be forced to sign the unemployment register? If there is no serious risk of that taking place, could not some means be found of telling those young girls so that they will not he worrying about going on to the unemployment register after giving three years of unstinted service to the medical profession?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot speak specifically about Westminster Hospital, but I will certainly bear in mind the point that the noble Lord makes. I revert, however, to what I said in answer to his noble friend Lord Molloy: that some measure of mobility will be necessary in many cases.

My Lords, is it not a very unsatisfactory situation, when the Minister cannot give an answer to my noble friend Lord Molloy? Why are accurate figures not available? I understand that the last figures available were in September 1982, and they showed 10,793 qualified nurses unemployed and 8,849 unqualified. Why is it not possible for the noble Lord the Minister to give figures now? Is it because of the cuts in the number of people collecting such statistics? Is this not a thorough waste of the skills and training of nurses at a time when they are surely needed, particularly to deal with an ageing population?

My Lords, I am unable to give a figure because the information to which the noble Lord referred was supplied by the Department of Employment, but following the introduction of the voluntary registration procedure in October 1982, of which the noble Lord will be aware, information about occupation is not available in the unemployment benefit office records, on which the unemployment count is now based.

I will go further and say that, unlike the noble Lord, I do not believe it would necessarily serve any particularly useful purpose to collect the information he seeks. So much of it is a question of local conditions, of conditions relating to family activity, and so on, to which I referred when I answered the noble Lord, Lord Molloy.

But with respect, my Lords, surely this is far more than a question of local conditions, because the figures, even as they were reported then, were twice as high as they were in 1979. Is it not a fact that there are nurses now being trained who, on completing their training, will be unable to find employment within the health service?

My Lords, I said when I answered the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, that there would he a period of time, perhaps, when a few people, after they had finished their period of training, would be unemployed. The number of qualified nursing and midwifery staff registered as unemployed in England in September 1982—which is the last date for which figures are available—was 7,057. That was an increase of 1,746 over the previous year. The number registered as unemployed then represented about 2 per cent. of qualified staff and those in training, and we have no reason to believe that that figure of 2 per cent. is any different now.

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that it is not just a question of newly-qualified staff not being able to find work? Difficulties are also arising in the case of married women who leave the profession temporarily to have a family and who then wish to return on a part-time basis. Will the Minister look into the availability of work opportunities for those people whose skills would otherwise be wasted?

My Lords, I believe that I covered that point, too, in answer to an earlier supplementary question. The fact remains that the important task in the health service at the moment is to make the best use of the manpower facilities which are available generally, and to make sure that they are more efficiently employed then would be the case if one just hired people to take on responsibilities which could be filled by people already in post.

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister not agree with me that nurses make very good wives?

My Lords, I am not sure to whom the noble Lord is married. On the other hand, I am quite sure that he is right.

My Lords, bearing in mind my noble friend's response to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, is he aware that the House will he extremely gratified to hear that he will bear Lord Fitt's suggestion in mind? However, is he also aware that the noble Lord asked whether it is possible for him or his department to contact the nurses at Westminster Hospital in order to give them some form of comfort in regard to their concerns and worries?

My Lords, essentially that is a matter for the local health authority concerned. I am sure the chairman of the local health authority will note my noble friend's remarks.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, according to the Confederation of Health Service Employees, popularly known as the nurses' union, this temporary unemployment of state registered nurses and enrolled nurses might he spasmodic and it varies from region to region? I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to recommend to regions, where the confederation feels that there is an unnecessary hiatus created when nurses achieve their diplomas and become full-time SRNs and SENs, that they immediately enter into discussions with the confederation with a view to reducing the time during which nurses are unemployed, which is a great waste for the nation, and of course injurious to patients.

My Lords, facilities do exist for representatives of CoHSE to talk to the regions concerned, and of course the regions are in direct contact with the department.