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Health Workers: Training

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to increase the number of training places for doctors, nurses and other health workers.

My Lords, on 4 October the Health Secretary announced that from September 2018, the Government will fund up to 1,500 additional undergraduate medical places each year. Reforms to the funding of nursing, midwifery and allied health preregistration training will come into effect on 1 August 2017. The reforms will enable universities to offer up to 10,000 additional training places by the end of this Parliament.

I thank the Minister for his Answer and welcome him to what I think is his first parliamentary Question. I am sure that the Government recognise that there is a growing shortage of health workers globally that comes about as countries, particularly in Asia, expand their workforce enormously. There is a global market and global competition for health professionals. The UK was going to be affected by it regardless of Brexit, but the uncertainties of Brexit make it worse. First, what assessment have the Government made of the scale of the risks from those two factors? Secondly, what assessment have they made of the opportunities? The UK is a world leader in the education of health professionals. What are the Government doing to help universities and others take the opportunity to train more health workers both here and abroad to meet both the UK’s and the world’s demand for increased numbers?

I thank the noble Lord for his welcome. The WHO has identified a global shortage of medical staff of more than 2 million, so clearly there is a big need and, as he says, it is being driven by the development of countries, particularly those with large populations, and the need to grow their own staff. At the moment, about 25% of NHS staff in the UK come from abroad and, like all NHS staff, they do a fantastic job for us. Clearly, given the problem that the noble Lord identified, we will need to become less reliant on overseas staff, which is one reason driving our desire to increase the number of training places for doctors, nurses, midwives and others.

In answer to the second part of his question, I think something like 10 of the world’s top universities are based in the UK. We are a world leader in education; that is a great strength of ours and something that we want to continue. Healthcare UK is the government body responsible for working with universities to unlock partnerships with other countries, and there have been a number of successful examples of where that has happened.

My Lords, if we are such a world leader in education, it is disappointing that the Government are doing everything they can to stop overseas students coming to our universities to study. On the NHS, the Minister will know that it is under the most extreme pressure. Cancer operations are being cancelled, people are dying on trolleys waiting for beds, and all the Government can do is attack general practitioners. Has the noble Lord seen the NAO report this month which shows that, since 2010, almost as many GPs have left the service as joined and that falling retention and increasing retirement rates put the target of 5,000 extra GPs at risk? The Minister says that the Government hold NHS staff in high esteem, so why do they not talk to and work with GPs to put this right rather than slagging them off?

I do not recognise the description of “slagging off”. We know that GPs do a fantastic job and we are recruiting more of them—5,000, as the noble Lord said. More money is going into general practice as part of the five-year forward view. The Prime Minister in her statement paid tribute to the work that GPs do and said that there were obligations around extended hours and the provision of out-of-hours healthcare—and it is quite right, with the pressures we face, that every part of the healthcare system steps up to fulfil its responsibilities just as others are doing, in order to meet the pressure we are under.

My Lords, in the past I have raised the issue of the standard of training for nurses and the fact that they have to have five A-levels to get in. The answer from the Government is that they are about to introduce training that will not require five A-levels and therefore will produce many more nurses. Can the Minister tell us what is happening with that and whether there is any real progress?

There are two routes into nursing. One is the university route, and because of the changes we are making, there will be the possibility for universities to recruit up to 10,000 more nurses. That is why we are removing the cap. We have also introduced an apprenticeship route, which does not involve going to university but follows the apprenticeship route practised in other fields. That will have 1,000 places in its first instance.

Data in December showed that applications for midwifery and nursing degrees and other allied health university courses in England had fallen by more than 20% since the Government’s announcement of plans to scrap the NHS bursary in favour of loans for student midwives and nurses. Given that we are already extremely short of nurses and midwives, what will the Government do, first, to reverse the removal of the bursary given that most of the courses are on the wards, learning on the job, and, secondly, to encourage the recruitment of more nurses and midwives?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. We are recruiting and creating conditions for the recruitment of more nurses. Something like 37,000 applications were turned down for those wishing to take on nursing, midwifery and allied health professional degrees in 2014-15. That was one of the reasons for removing the cap and equalising the funding arrangement that goes to nurses on other courses within higher education. That will allow universities to provide more places for trainee nurses. We are still early in the cycle and are moving to a new system. I think the UCAS applications have just closed and it is certainly true that in the past when fees were introduced by whichever Government—Labour, coalition or whoever—there was sometimes a small dip in take-up in the first year. But following that, in all those cases across the system, there was a strong rebound in interest in higher education places.

It is the turn of the Cross Benches, but they will have to work out who is going to speak for them—and then we will have the Labour Benches.

My Lords, my profession of psychiatry is the medical specialty which has recruited the most specialists from outside the United Kingdom, with 41% of trainees coming from overseas. It takes something like 14 years to train a consultant psychiatrist. Can the Minister confirm whether it is the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to allow doctors, nurses and other health and social care professionals to remain in the United Kingdom after Brexit?

The Prime Minister has been incredibly clear on this point—and was again yesterday. It is our intention to do so, and to agree that early with our EU partners. But that is something that needs to be reciprocated.

My Lords, we certainly need more doctors and nurses. The problem is that we are not retaining as many as we should, and there is no doubt that they feel denigrated and devalued. They really need to feel appreciated rather than kicked around all the time. Are the Government going to help them in any way whatever, or are they going to be constantly criticised?

I do not believe that we are criticising. To take the noble Lord’s point, he is right that there is often negativity in the media about the performance of health professionals. But it is worth pointing out that in a recent poll earlier this week, those who believe that the NHS provides a high standard of care is now at 71%, up 13% since 2013. That is a huge testament to the amazing work that our NHS does.