Jeremy Hunt is facing a last-ditch Commons move to save nursing bursaries as Labour seeks to put the issue at the heart of its local election campaign.
In a fresh Parliamentary ambush due when MPs return from their Easter break, the Opposition are to table a vote on regulations enacting the scrapping of postgraduate support, HuffPost UK has learned.
Deploying an arcane procedure known as ‘praying against’ regulations, Labour hopes to persuade Tory and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rebels to back its move.
The DUP has strongly defended student bursaries in the devolved health service in Northern Ireland and risks accusations of hypocrisy if it fails to give England similar protection - in the run up to the May 3 local elections.
Ministers tabled a new statutory instrument just before Easter, revoking previous regulations and replacing them with a fresh Parliamentary order that gives MPs the chance to have their say.
The Royal College of Nursing and others have attacked the Government’s decision to replace undergraduate bursaries for nurses with student loans for fees of up to £9,000 a year.
The RCN has already warned that ministers seem “hell bent” on reducing access to the profession after it emerged that postgraduate nurses will also be forced to pay tuition fees for the first time.
An ‘Equality Analysis’ in February by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) revealed that the huge debts involved in student loans were likely to put off poorer applicants, as well as the older and black and ethnic minority groups on which the NHS relies for recruitment.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner MP told HuffPost: “Scrapping NHS bursaries was both regressive and counterproductive, fuelling a recruitment crisis in our NHS and worsening inequality.
“Now Ministers are extending the cuts to yet more nursing courses, and they tried to sneak this latest move through without letting it even go to the Commons.
“That is why we have forced this vote. If Tory MPs really want to protect the NHS, they should vote for it.
“This government can’t be trusted to deliver either a fair and sustainable education system, or a functioning NHS. The next Labour Government will make sure higher education is open to everyone and protect our NHS by scrapping tuition fees and bringing back bursaries for nursing students.”
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth added: “We already have a workforce crisis across the NHS and abolishing bursaries is making the staffing crisis worse. Labour is fighting this regressive cut at every step and calling on ministers to reverse this policy and restore funding support so we can recruit for the future.”
Janet Davies, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the RCN, said: “The Government is right to give Parliament more time to debate the issue.
“But it is insulting to those who have spent two months campaigning against these plans to see exactly the same legislation put forward.
“When the impact of nurse shortages is clear, this remains a short-sighted plan that will deter more people from entering the profession. The two-year graduate programme is one of the quickest ways to get more nurses and it must be expanded, not restricted.
“We will continue to fight it and work with all parliamentarians to provide opposition to the legislation.”
Hunt last year announced the creation of 5,000 new places on nursing training courses every year in a bid to boost the NHS workforce in England and get it ready for Brexit
The Government points out that although applications have fallen by 20% since the bursary changes, the number of acceptances has dropped by just 1% from 2016 to 2017.
The Government argues that moving to student loans and fees helps free up taxpayer cash to support a sustainable model for universities.
It adds that under the new scheme, postgraduates will receive a 25% increase in the financial support they receive, as well as child dependents’ allowance, travel and dual accommodation support and exceptional hardship funds for those who need it.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokeswoman said: “Nursing, midwifery and allied health profession courses are already oversubscribed which means talented students are having their applications rejected.
“These funding changes have already led to 10,000 extra training places, meaning more staff working in the NHS than ever before and importantly, students will receive 25% more financial support whilst studying than before.”
UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “The government needs to admit it got this one very wrong.
“Official figures show that government penny-pinching is deterring a whole generation of nurses and other health professionals from their chosen career in the NHS.
“The toxic combination of underfunded services, wage stagnation and increased pressure on services has created a whole new uncertainly into which graduates are understandably not willing to enter into knowing they will leave with such huge debts.
“This is the government’s last chance saloon. Its ministers’ final opportunity to reverse a huge own goal and a ridiculously damaging decision.”