Junior Doctors' Contracts

Oral Answers to Questions — Health, Social Services and Public Safety – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 8th December 2015.

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Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 8th December 2015

5. Ms Hanna asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety when he will make a final decision in relation to the proposed changes to junior doctors' contracts. (AQO 9294/11-16)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I recently made a statement indicating that I have no desire to impose a contract on junior doctors in training but that my preferred way forward is through negotiation. I welcome the outcome from the ACAS discussions between the Department of Health and the BMA and that all parties are willing to explore how best to deliver together on a new junior doctors' contract. I see this as a great opportunity, and I am optimistic that these discussions will lead to an agreed way forward. I therefore think that it would be pertinent to await the outcome of these exploratory talks before making a considered decision for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. I think that you will understand the frustrations of ordinary junior doctors, particularly given the swifter resolution of this issue in Scotland and Wales. You will be aware that, as well as their safety concerns, junior doctors are worried about the impact that this issue will have on recruitment. In light of George Osborne's autumn statement and the announcement on nursing bursaries and the potential loss of that subvention for student nurses, can you outline what plans your Department has to address that issue and prevent it from exacerbating an already acute nursing shortage?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

There are two issues, which I will try to deal with in the time available to me. On the issue of junior doctors' contracts, as I said, I welcome the fact that both sides — the Department of Health/NHS employers and the junior doctors' side — are now engaged in discussions within a short, limited time period. That is what I wanted to see from the start and I think that that is the most likely way to reach the conclusion that I want to see, which is an agreed contract for the whole of the United Kingdom. The Member said that there had been a "swifter resolution" in Scotland and Wales. I do not accept the terminology that it was a swifter resolution. Scotland and Wales took a particular decision not to impose a contract. I did not take that decision because I wanted to encourage both sides to go back into negotiations. It may form a resolution from some people's perspective, but I do not consider it to be a satisfactory resolution of a situation that would ensure that a contract that has been agreed by all sides previously as being not fit for purpose remains in place. That is why I want to see a negotiated settlement around this issue, and I encourage all sides to negotiate.

I am aware of the announcement that was made in the Chancellor's autumn statement on nursing bursaries. The Member will be aware that that does not impact on Northern Ireland because of devolution. When I entered the Department back in May, some work had been done by officials in looking at the issue of nursing bursaries and also at nursing fees, which, in most circumstances, I think, are paid for by the Department. That is not a route that I wanted to go down, and I stopped that from heading down that direction. Hopefully, that gives some assurance to nurses. However, I do think that there are issues particularly around the retention of nurses after they qualify, and I am keen to look at that. There are changes that perhaps we can make that I am sure everyone can agree with. If we are investing in fees, in bursaries, in nurses and in nursing students, I think that we want to see the benefit of that investment in the health service here in Northern Ireland. That is something that I am keen to look at.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am afraid that that ends the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions.