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NHS: Professional Qualifications Directive

Volume 739: debated on Monday 15 October 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in negotiations at European level on the working time and recognition of professional qualifications directives in the light of their impact on the delivery of care in the NHS.

My Lords, negotiations on both directives are ongoing. The Government remain of the view that both measures should support labour-market flexibility without imposing significant extra costs on member states to ensure that any negative impacts that we have seen are ameliorated and, most importantly, to ensure that patient safety is maintained.

My Lords, I declare an interest as professor of surgery and consultant surgeon at University College London Hospitals. In today’s Daily Telegraph the presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians make an urgent plea for action on these two elements of legislation to halt a devastating deterioration in clinical training and patient safety. Do Her Majesty’s Government collect data on the number of patients harmed as a result of the implementation of these two directives, for instance from coroners’ inquests where they have been implicated in patient deaths, and on the financial consequences in terms of the employment of locum doctors in the NHS to ensure that hospitals are 48-hour-week compliant? If these data are not collected will the Minister commit to organising for their collection in the future to better inform this Parliament and to add impetus to the Government’s negotiations with their European partners?

My Lords, it is the responsibility of individual NHS trusts to ensure that service rotas are compliant with the working time directive. In line with the Government’s coalition agreement to reduce duplication and resources spent on administration, the department reduced bureaucracy for the service by removing the burden of central monitoring of compliance and we are leaving this role to organisations at local level. The last assessment of the working time directive was undertaken in January 2010 and reported that nearly 99% of doctors’ rotas were compliant with the directive but we are in no doubt about the concerns that exist within the medical professions about the inflexibilities within the rules of the directive. As regards the mutual recognition directive, the department does not plan to collect directly any data relating to it. The professional regulators. who are the competent authorities, collect data in respect of the number of people applying for recognition under the directive.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that the clinicians at the Institute of Cancer Research where I am the chairman regard the working time directive as being of no benefit at all to their patients? In view of this fact, can he please tell me now—or if not now, in a letter with a copy placed in your Lordships’ Library—the details of the meetings that have taken place between Ministers and senior officials and their opposite numbers in Brussels? The Government have long believed that they are able to revoke or to revise this directive but so far, after two and a half years, I see no progress at all.

My Lords, it is important to understand that the EU social partner process, which is driving the discussions at the moment and has been extended to 31 December, is autonomous. It operates independently of both the Commission and the Council and the Government have no formal role in any social partner negotiations. Having said that, we have made it clear to the Commission and to partners in Europe that securing long-term sustainable growth has to be the EU’s key priority. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that EU measures support labour-market flexibility and do not impose significant costs on member states or burdens on business. The Government would welcome proposals coming forward that would preserve the right for all workers, including those in the NHS, to choose the hours that they work, including in particular flexibility in the areas of on-call time and compensatory rest as well as the preservation of the individual opt-out.

Does the noble Earl agree that the working time directive as it now operates is detrimental both to patient care and doctor training? Is it not time that we stopped at least the nonsense of counting time in the 48 hours as time when one is on call, even though one may never be called? Will the noble Earl make sure that the case is made to the EU that at least this part of the directive is rescinded?

The SiMAP and Jaeger judgments are very much the focus of our representations to the EU Commission. The disquiet about those judgements and the inflexibility that they have brought is shared by other member states. It is also important to recognise that none of us wants to go back to the past, with tired doctors working excessive hours. Tired doctors make mistakes; there is substantial evidence to support that. No one wants or deserves to be treated by tired doctors. There is a balance to be struck. The inflexibilities in the directive need to be addressed, but we should not go back to the bad old days when doctors became too tired to do their work.

My Lords, if a clinician fails to understand a patient or to make themselves understood, their clinical competence is undermined. Will the noble Earl tell the House the current situation regarding the required level of English language competence of a doctor or other clinician from an EU state who wishes to practise in England?

My Lords, we are now talking about the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive. We have made it clear that we want to stop foreign healthcare professionals working in the NHS unless they have passed robust language and competence tests. As a result, we have explored the idea of strengthening language testing for doctors through the use of responsible officers; and explored also the GMC’s ability to take action where concerns arise. The directive review is a key priority for the Government, and the Commission’s proposals include greater flexibility on language. It is helpful that the proposal from the Commission makes it clear that controls on language checks are permissible and may be undertaken before a professional is able to practise.