I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the measured way in which he introduced it.
The NHS is 65 this year, and if it is to be ready for the challenges of this century, it must learn from the darkest hours of its past. The NHS was founded on compassion and, as the Secretary of State said, what happened at Stafford was a betrayal of that. Rightly, apologies have been given, but it is now time to act and make this a moment of change.
Robert Francis delivered 290 careful recommendations after a three-year public inquiry and, like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to him today. In response, the Prime Minister promised a detailed response to each recommendation by the end of this month. Although the Opposition welcome much of what the Secretary of State has said today, his statement falls short of that promised full response and contains serious omissions on which I would like to press him, in particular, on four of Robert Francis’s flagship recommendations, which I shall take in turn.
First, we welcome the move to place a duty of candour on health-care providers and believe it could help bring about the culture change the NHS needs. The Francis report, however, goes further and recommends a duty of candour on individual members of staff. Will the Secretary of State say more about why he has only accepted this recommendation in part and not applied it to staff? Has he ruled that out or is he prepared to give it further consideration?
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the duty will apply equally to all providers of NHS services, including private providers? His statement was a little vague on that point. More generally, with more private providers coming into the NHS, is it not the case that we will not get the transparency we need unless the provisions of freedom of information apply fully to all holders of NHS contracts and information cannot be withheld under commercial confidentiality?
Secondly, on patient voice, the Government have announced new chief inspectors of hospitals and social care. Those were not Francis recommendations and, while we give them a cautious welcome, I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that regulation alone will not be enough to prevent another Mid Staffs. Instead, we need a powerful patient voice in every community that is able to sound the alarm if things are going wrong. Rather than pulling down the shutters, as the NHS has a tendency to do, complaints should be embraced as opportunities to learn and improve.
It is just a matter of days until the new NHS comes into being and the concern is that patient voice has not been embedded at the heart of the new system. A third of councils say that their local healthwatch will not be up and running by the
Thirdly, on regulation and training, Robert Francis has made a very clear case for a new system of regulation of health care assistants to improve basic standards—a case that we made during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012—yet it did not feature in the Secretary of State’s statement. Have the Government accepted in principle the regulation of health care assistants?
We support moves to rebalance nurse training and to include more hands-on experience, but student nurses already spend 50% of their time in clinical practice and face significant financial barriers when completing their training. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that requiring a year on the ward will not increase the financial barriers to young people entering nursing and, if more trainees are to be on the wards, will he ensure that there are enough staff with the time to train the extra students?
That takes me to my fourth point and the most glaring omission from the Secretary of State’s statement, namely safe staffing levels. We will never get the right culture on our wards if they are understaffed and over-stretched, but there is evidence that things are going in the wrong direction and the Secretary of State was silent on the issue today.
The CQC has recently reported that one in 10 hospitals in England do not have adequate staffing levels. Just last week, work force figures showed that there had been a reduction of 843 nurses between November and December last year. Does that not sound the clearest of alarm bells that some parts of the NHS are already in danger of forgetting the lessons of its recent past by cutting the front line too far? Do not communities need a clear, objective benchmark so that they can challenge staffing levels on wards, and would it not be a great help to them for the Francis recommendation on staff-patient ratios to be accepted? We learned last week that the Department has handed £2.2 billion from last year’s budget back to the Treasury. Surely that money would have been better invested in the front line and in bringing all hospitals in England back up to safe staffing levels.
Finally, I want to turn to Stafford hospital itself, which Monitor has recommended should be placed in administration. This doubt about the hospital’s future will be causing real concern to the people of Stafford. After all they have been through, I think we can all agree that they deserve a safe and sustainable hospital, and I hope the Secretary of State will soon set out a plan to achieve that.
Learning the lessons of Stafford cannot be done overnight. We all have to play our part. The Government have made a start today, but much more needs to be done and we will hold them to that.