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Routes into Nursing

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2018

The NHS needs more nurses, which is why we are making big changes for new entries into the profession, including the new nurse associate role and new nurse degree apprenticeships.

I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State values the degree apprenticeship as a way to provide further routes into nursing, but will he consider working with the Treasury and across the Government to increase the funding that educational establishments receive from the Institute for Apprenticeships for nursing courses, to further incentivise universities and colleges to offer more places on those courses?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question. It will strengthen my hand with the Department for Education, which decides what levels of funding are made available from the Institute for Apprenticeships. It has actually given us the highest level of funding, at £27,000, but we never say no to more.

But will the Secretary of State admit that he made a basic error by scrapping nurse bursaries, which has led to a 23% fall in the number of people applying to nurse courses? Why does he not look at that if he wants to widen the entrance into nursing?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was listening to the answer I just gave, but the truth is—

I am most grateful. That is a very rare compliment, so I shall savour it. I would gently say to her that the point about nurse degree apprenticeships is that it is possible to transition into nursing from being a healthcare assistant without any fees being paid at all. That is why it is a huge and highly significant change.

As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) is sporting what appears to me to be a very fetching suffragette rosette, it is perhaps timely to record that in the great success our national health service has been under successive Governments, I think I am right in saying, as things stand, that well over 70% of the people who make it great are women.

Following the recent inquiry by the Select Committee on Health into the nursing workforce, we absolutely welcome the new routes into nursing, including the new role of nursing associate. However, one of the issues highlighted strongly was the need to retain our existing nursing workforce as well as to recruit into it. Will the Secretary of State comment on that?

My hon. Friend speaks very wisely—we do need to be better at retaining our existing workforce. I think that is why the Treasury has given me extra latitude in negotiations on the pay rise—those discussions are currently happening—but we also need to be much better at flexible working and at recognising the challenges people have in their ordinary working lives.

Unlike in Scotland, where student nurses receive free tuition and a nursing bursary of over £6,500 a year, nurses in England now face debts of £50,000 on graduation. Owing to that, training applications in England have dropped by a third since 2015, and the new nursing apprenticeship attracted only 30 trainees against a target of 1,000. Will the Secretary of State not accept that he got it wrong, and reinstate the nursing bursary?

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that, because we have published a draft of a workforce strategy in this country, but I notice that Audit Scotland says that in Scotland there is a lack of a long-term strategic plan for the workforce. I gently say to him that there are workforce pressures across the United Kingdom. We have a plan to dramatically increase the number of nurses that we employ in the NHS, and I am sure many people in Scotland would like to see the same there.

The Secretary of State has claimed that the removal of the bursary would fund 10,000 extra training places, but the first 5,000 will start only this autumn and the nurses will qualify only in 2021. With more than 36,000 nursing vacancies in England, more nurses leaving than joining and a 90% drop in EU nurses coming to the UK because of Brexit, exactly who does he expect to care for patients in the meantime?

As we discussed earlier, we are broadening the routes into nursing from just traditional higher education courses, including nurse apprenticeships and people being able to train on the job over four years in a hospital. We hope that a whole group of healthcare assistants who currently find it difficult to get into nursing can become nurses. I think that would be very welcome in Scotland as well.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on progress made in reducing the cost of agency nurses so that the money can be reinvested in full-time nursing?

I am happy to do that. It is one of the great successes of NHS Improvement, which should be celebrated, that it has brought down the amount spent on agency nursing by £1 billion in the last couple of years. That is a huge achievement. Every penny of that goes back into frontline care.

The Government cut the number of nurse training places in 2010, and when they scrapped bursaries applications from mature students suffered particularly. What is the point of blaming trusts for hiring agency staff when the Government simply do not train enough nurses to fill the vacancies?

Perhaps I should set the record straight for the hon. Lady. We have 52,000 nurses in training—more than was ever the case under the last Labour Government, who were planning to cut nurse training places by 6%. We are planning to increase them by 25%. That shows our commitment to nursing.

Yesterday, the Royal College of Nursing reported on the total failure of Government policies to increase the nursing workforce. As we have just heard, the Government hoped to recruit 1,000 trainees to the nursing apprenticeship, but ended up with just 30. This year, the number applying to university to study nursing has so far fallen by a staggering 33%. We have a workforce crisis exacerbated by badly thought out policies, so is it not time that the Secretary of State admitted that scrapping the bursary was a mistake?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but that is not the first time that he has presented a somewhat incomplete picture of what is actually happening. In the last five years, we have 15,700 more nurses, and the reason for those vacancies and for the pressure is that, as he knows very well, under the last Labour Government we had Mid Staffs, which was a crisis of short staffing that this Government are putting right. That is why we want to recruit those extra nurses.