Eleanor Smith MP - Why we need to change the law to fix the staffing crisis in nursing

Posted On: 
17th July 2019

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care should have explicit powers in law for the growth and development of the health and care workforce across England, says Eleanor Smith MP. 

At some point in our lives, whether at hospital or at home, almost every one of us will depend on the expertise or advice of a nursing professional. When that time comes, you can bet that he or she will do their utmost to provide you with the very best possible care.

But what if that person is experiencing exhaustion from working unpaid overtime all week?  What if they would like to spend more time discussing your treatment with you, but simply can’t, because they have to cover another nursing professional’s duties alongside their own? 

That is the unacceptable daily reality for thousands of nursing staff and their patients. Despite years of warnings from the profession and its friends, one in ten nursing positions in England alone stands vacant – and that’s to say nothing of the social care sector, where the problem could be worse.

I am a nurse. My daughter is a nurse; nursing is in my family, and it has fundamentally informed what I do and who I am. That’s why I’ve triggered a debate in which I and colleagues from across the House will set out what the government must do to finally get to grips with the staffing crisis that threatens careers and undermines the quality of care across the health and care system.

The health and care workforce crisis has come about because there is no clarity in existing legal powers and duties to ensure that there are enough staff – with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time – to provide safe and effective care. There is literally no one – nobody, no one person – who is accountable for growing and developing our health and care workforce to meet patient need now, and in the future. This lack of clarity, which unfortunately impacts on the current Long-Term Plan for the NHS and its interim workforce plan, has enabled under-funding and poor workforce planning to become perennial issues which nobody is ultimately responsible for solving.

The Royal College of Nursing and other professional and patient organisations are unanimous in their solution. They are calling, with cross-party support, for a change in the law to explicitly set out who in Government – and others across the health and care system – hold the accountability and responsibility for workforce supply, recruitment, retention and remuneration.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is currently under a legal duty to provide a “comprehensive service”. With all due respect, this responsibility is too broad. So to begin with, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care should have explicit powers in law for the growth and development of the health and care workforce across England. This should inevitably lead to better long-term policies including a new and more generous funding system for nurse education. National organisations, like NHS England and NHS Improvement, should be also more explicitly responsible for workforce planning and funding.

With these simple legal changes, never again would the system be able to sidestep workforce planning when setting 10 year visions for the future of our NHS.

This is a truly cross-party issue, and rightfully so. We all have health and care professionals living and working in our constituencies. We all have constituents who need nursing care at some point in their lives.

There is an opportunity to fix this cleanly and easily, and the moment is now. An incoming Prime Minister and his team must commit to ending the workforce crisis, once and for all.

Eleanor Smith is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South West.