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Nursing: Recruitment

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards meeting their target of recruiting 50,000 extra nurses by 2024.

This Government are committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses and putting the NHS on to a sustainable long-term workforce supply. We have set up a comprehensive work programme to improve nurse retention, support return to practice, diversify our training pipeline and ethically recruit nurses internationally. We are over half way towards meeting the commitment, with nursing numbers over 29,000 higher in July 2022—our latest available data point—than the September 2019 starting point for this commitment.

My Lords, recent analysis shows that there are over 50,000 registered nurse vacances across all settings in England alone. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of current vacancy rates on patient safety? What is the Minister’s response to the warning of the Chief Nursing Officer that the Government’s pledge for additional nurses, even if it is reached, will not be enough?

We appreciate that recruitment is an ongoing process, and while I think the whole House would agree a 29,000 increase is a good record—up 9,000 in the last year alone—we cannot rest on our laurels. Vacancies of 50,000 is partially a function of a full-employment economy, which I think we would all support. We are showing that our recruitment is working and, as I say, we are over half way towards our target of 50,000 more nurses.

My Lords, a few months ago, the Secretary of State but two said that the NHS long-term workforce strategy would include numerical assessment of both supply and demand of nurses and other clinical professionals but that publishing those details would depend on cross-government agreement. There was broad agreement in this House, in June, that those numbers should be published. Could my noble friend the Minister put on record his support for publishing NHS workforce supply and demand numbers? If he does not feel able to, could he explain how we will know whether 50,000 is the right number of nurses?

There is a long-term workforce strategy plan being put together, as I think we know, and that builds on the NHS people plan of 2020, which has seen this increase in numbers. I will find out where we are with that, and the details behind that, and write to my noble friend.

My Lords, what advice would the Minister give to a senior staff nurse, working in theatre, and at the top of her pay band, alongside agency nurses who are paid two to three times as much as she is for a 10-hour shift? Should she leave the NHS and become an agency nurse herself, or should she vote to strike, as she may well be asked to by her union?

I would hope and trust that such a respected person would see this position as the vocation that it is and the support that they give. We accept that there are some agency workers being used in this space, because obviously, in terms of safety, we need to make sure we cover that number of people. The whole recruitment plan—which, again, we are on target to achieve—is all about making sure we have enough nurses so that we do not have to use agency workers.

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, can I ask the Minister if there are plans to increase the number of student nursing places at universities and student apprenticeships over at least the next decade? While there is a short-term crisis, there is also a longer-term sustainability crisis, especially with current demographics.

The noble Baroness is correct that this is a long-term pipeline. We have 72,000 nurses in training at the moment. To be clear, there is no cap at all on student places. We are seeking to increase them as much as possible, and we put a £5,000-a-year grant in so that trainee nurses could enjoy superior levels of financial support than other students. The fact that we have a pipeline of 72,000 shows that this is working, but that pipeline is not capped, so if we can get more people in, we definitely want to do that.

No matter how many nurses we try to recruit, we never seem to catch up with the rate of loss. What are the Government doing to help retention of nurses? We must try to encourage them and support them to stay. What plans are there to do that, and what plans have the Government got to bring back nurses who have left or retired?

First, we are actually exceeding the number of leavers. There were 36,000 people who left last year and 45,000 who joined—a net increase of 9,000. That is not to say that we do not want to retain people. I absolutely accept the premise that we do, which is why we have a retention programme in place to ensure that we are able to do so. We also have a restart programme to help people who have left to get back into nursing in a quick and easy way. Overall, the main point here is that the number of joiners is exceeding the number of leavers. We are more than catching the number up; we are exceeding it.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a nurse and the co-editor of the WHO report, State of the World’s Nursing. It is true that we have 9,000 additional nurses, but of the 48,000 who in the last year joined the register for the whole UK—for the four countries, not just England—more than half had trained overseas. Those nurses are very welcome here, but it illustrates that we are not encouraging people who wish to go into nursing to do so, beyond the 72,000 the Minister referred to. That is very much to do with student finance and the lack of apprenticeship opportunities for older people who want to go into the profession. Can the Minister look into increasing those opportunities?

Indeed, and towards that aim we have set up the nursing associate role, which is a stepping-stone to allow people to ease in and have qualifications on the way to becoming a fully trained nurse. The overall point I make, as before, is that by putting in a £5,000-a-year grant for student nurses, we are recruiting the numbers. I reiterate that 72,000 is a big pipeline but also that it is an uncapped pipeline. The more we can attract, the merrier—whether domestically or, as in the fine tradition of the NHS, from overseas sources.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the percentage of nurse vacancies is much higher in community care than in any other part of the sector? What is the department doing to ensure not only that we have enough nurses but that they are in the right places?

That is an excellent point. One thing I probably should have said is that the number of 36,000 leavers includes people who have left NHS trusts and gone into community care, working in GP surgeries. We do not catch that number who come back in again, so the real number is less than 36,000, but the basic premise of the question—making sure we are attracting nurses to the right place—is absolutely the right one. I believe that is the plan in place, but I will check on that and make sure we are doing as requested.

My Lords, would it be possible to make it quicker and cheaper to get visas to bring to the UK nurses from across the world who would like to work here? We can never have enough nurses without them, can we?

I totally agree with the approach. I have declared a personal interest before in that my wife is a dentist from the Dominican Republic who came in exactly that way, so I completely support the intent.

My Lords, I raised the subject of agency nurses in my maiden speech. In the private sector, it is quite common that if you receive training by an employer and leave within a certain period of time, you repay the cost of that training. If nurses qualify and then transfer to become an agency nurse and rip off hospital trusts, as we heard earlier from the noble Baroness opposite, should they repay the costs of the training they have been given?

I do not think I can quite agree with the words “rip off”, but I get the sentiment. As I am sure we all have, I have been involved in industries where, if your employer pays for your training and you do not return the contract—for want of a better word—or investment by giving a few years’ commitment to do it, there should be some sort of clawback. I understand the approach, but right now my focus is on making sure we get as many people into training as possible.