Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard; regrettably, it may well be for the last time in this Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) on securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on allocating the time. It is on an important issue, and the reason I wish to participate in it is because I serve on the Health Committee and we have looked at this issue on a number of occasions as part of our annual accountability hearings. Indeed, we produced a report, which my hon. Friend referred to; it was the fifth report of Session 2013-14, and the reference is HC 699. It is an excellent piece of work. The Committee went into some detail, covering many issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon and making recommendations about how best to proceed.
I do not want to repeat the arguments, but it might be useful to put into context the report and the concerns that have been raised. Constituents of mine who are nurses and midwives have written to me individually, quite apart from the petition. I think many hon. Members throughout the country have had similar representations.
There is an issue about fairness in respect of this considerable increase in fees, and about how the increases have come about. There is also an issue about whether those who are required, by the nature of their employment, to be registered should be placed into financial hardship, as has happened in some cases, particularly with women returners who are working limited, part-time hours. We all agree with registration, to maintain public confidence and trust in the nursing profession. However, there is an issue about whether some allowance should be made for them, in terms of a reduction in their fees.
As my hon. Friend indicated, the nursing and midwifery professions are among the oldest established and longest regulated professions in the United Kingdom, with regulation taking many forms over the last century. The current regulator, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which has given evidence to the Health Committee, has been in operation since 2002. As we have heard, it is the statutory regulator for more than 670,000 nurses and midwives. The £67 million figure relating to its income is an old one, because it now receives more than £70 million.
In 2011, the Health Committee began holding annual accountability hearings in relation to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Prior to that, our concentration was essentially on the regulation of the medical profession, with the General Medical Council. We have since widened the scope of the annual accountability hearings. In its report on the first annual accountability hearing with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Committee expressed concerns
“about the affordability of the registration fee”.
This has not just popped up: we have identified it as a trend since 2011. In that report, the Committee urged the Nursing and Midwifery Council
“to avoid further fee rises and to consider fee reductions for new entrants to the register”.
However, there have been fee rises since then. When I was first elected, the fees were £76 and they increased to £100 in February 2013. The further rise to £120 a year—that would probably account for the increase in revenue—would mean a 52% fee increase, at a time when nurses and midwives are experiencing severe and unsustainable pay restraint. These problems are further compounded by the decision of the Government and the Secretary of State for Health to veto the 1% NHS pay rise, denying a pay increase to 70% of nursing staff and ignoring the view of the independent pay review body. I want to place on record that the incredible work and effort of our nurses and midwives do is of great value, and I want to say how much that is appreciated throughout the country.
Ms Ritchie: My hon. Friend is making a compelling case for the career position of nurses and midwives. Does he agree that the Nursing and Midwifery Council, as well as the Government, should be encouraging people into the profession, rather than providing disincentives, discouraging them from joining it and from training for such vital roles that will benefit all within the wider community?
Grahame M. Morris: I agree wholeheartedly. All across the country—certainly in my area—efforts are made, and have been made consistently, to recruit good quality staff. Often recruitment is done overseas, with adverts being placed in newspapers in countries that train good quality nurses and midwives, but have a surplus. It often strikes me as bizarre that although we have a reservoir of women returners, we not making it as easy as possible for them to return. Doing that would be in the interests of the service and of the country. It would be a false economy to continue doing what we are doing.
Sir Alan Meale: I am here today because my sister is a midwife and has been a nurse all her adult life. This is not just about times of restraint and restrictions on pay; there has also been a thorough re-grading of the whole nursing and midwifery system throughout the UK, which has already re-graded many nurses to lower grades than previously. They are experiencing a double whammy, and this is the third time they have been hit with a fee rise. We should not approve it.
Grahame M. Morris: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. That is another excellent point, well made. Pressures are being placed on the NMC, including increases in its costs, that are placing a greater strain and burden on nurses and midwives. The Government have to recognise that. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon has reservations about whether the Government supporting the NMC with one-off grants would impact on its impartiality. I do not think that should necessarily follow. We should recognise the considerable pressures being placed on it financially, not least those arising out of public concerns and the recommendations of the Francis report. We want the public to be confident that the profession is properly regulated and that the fitness to practise procedures are operating properly and effectively. However, I agree with my hon. Friend. There was a ministerial statement last Thursday regarding untoward practices highlighted in a report, including bullying of staff and so on, in a hospital in east London—I think it was the Barts Health Trust. If fitness to practise referrals are being used by employers in that way, it is reprehensible and is adding to the strains and pressures on the NMC.
The latest fee increases are being imposed on nurses and midwives who were extensively consulted about them. My hon. Friend mentioned the overwhelming numbers: 96%—many of us would be over the moon to have that as a vote of confidence in the general election—voted against those recommendations. However, it seems that the consultation served little purpose, other than to antagonise nurses and midwives, because the Nursing and Midwifery Council has, apparently, taken little or no regard of the views of NHS staff and has pressed ahead with the fee increase.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council has also failed to provide any assurances that the latest increase will not be followed up by further increases in coming years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) mentioned earlier, if we are to encourage people to come back into the profession, they have to know that the regulator has a reasonable, cost-effective process in place. The Nursing and Midwifery Council stated in evidence to the Health Committee last year that it had introduced an
“annual formal review of the fee level”,
so it is not necessarily an ongoing commitment. However, we have to ask: why has there been such a huge increase, of more than 50%, in a relatively short period?
Clearly the Nursing and Midwifery Council must meet its statutory obligations. We would expect that as Members of Parliament—and the public would certainly that—for maintaining professional standards. Certainly more needs to be done to remove the constraints it faces through the fitness to practise process—a number of hon. Members have highlighted that—which is too costly. Seventy-seven per cent of the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s income of more than £70 million is being spent investigating less than 1% of the nurses and midwives on the register. That is an incredible sum of money, and I find it difficult to comprehend how that can be an efficient use of resources.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council is making progress—I recognise that, and certainly the Committee recognised it, although it said it thought the progress was “fragile”. The NMC recognises past failures—not least in IT systems—and is seeking to overcome some of them, but it is clear that further improvement is required. An assessment by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care—the organisation that oversees all the professional regulators—has found that the Nursing and Midwifery Council is failing to meet seven of the 24 standards of good regulation. By any measure, I would suggest that there is still a long way to go in bringing it up to standard. Of those seven failures, two relate to fitness to practise.
While it is important that improvements continue to be made, it is wrong to expect nurses and midwives to bear the burden of the costs by themselves, particularly when we have seen the value of their pay fall in real terms over the life of this Parliament. The Government cannot sit idly by and allow continual increases in fees without taking action or giving some guidance. We hear Ministers time and again praising the hard work and dedication of nurses, and I hope the Minister will do that at the conclusion of the debate. Nurses do an amazing job in the most difficult circumstances, but when it comes to pay, pensions or professional fees, the kind words of Ministers seem to be rarely followed up by practical action that would help NHS staff.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will say what steps he is taking to support the Nursing and Midwifery Council to ensure that it can continue to drive through the improvements we all want to see without having to increase the fees and the cost of employment for nurses and midwives. I also hope that he will address the points made by my hon. and right hon. Friends on the need to speedily bring forward the law commissioners’ sensible and well thought out proposals on the NMC. I would be interested if he could explain why they have not been brought forward before now.