26/04/2017 04:36 BST | Updated 26/04/2017 05:18 BST

Risk And Regret


The National Health Service, so valued by the people of Britain, is being brought to its knees by the present government. It is only kept going by the skill, dedication and exceptionally hard work of its staff at every level.

Our health service is a rare combination of a labour intensive organisation with cutting-edge technology and science, but it is only a matter of time before it cracks. Not just because Ministers continue to restrict NHS wage increases but because we also have a serious shortage of staff. Even popular TV programmes such as Casualty have highlighted the extent of the problem.

Nurses and midwives have always been professionals but their roles have changed over the years, with more coming through the graduate route. Today, the performance of traditional duties is enhanced by a competence in the use of the high-tech equipment vital in modern medicine.

The UK currently has a shortage of 24,000 nurses and 3,500 midwives, and the NHS is only managing by attracting thousands more who come from abroad. With regard to those from other EU countries, the government have repeatedly turned down my requests to guarantee their residency beyond Brexit. Little wonder that the numbers of trained health workers applying to come to Britain has fallen dramatically since last June's referendum. Or that a Department of Health document has warned of up to 42,000 nursing vacancies by 2025.

This is a tragic situation which ministers are about to make worse by risking the future recruitment of UK students. In a rather outrageous move they plan to change the time-honoured practice of training nurses and midwives, by requiring them to fund their own courses. A legislative proposal that I have tabled a Regret Motion against, and which will be debated this Thursday in what may well be the last business of the current parliamentary session.

These professions are far from well-paid, yet the decision to scrap the bursary scheme from this autumn will see student nurses and midwives paying fees of £9000 for each year of a three year course. Add in living costs and they will begin their nursing career with debts approaching £50,000.

Beyond essential lectures and time working in the university library, much of the time on these courses takes place on hospital wards or in other health-care situations, including directly assisting patients. It is hard work but the Conservatives appear determined to make student nurses pay for the privilege of learning to look after people in hospital.

The proposals will have repercussions not just in the NHS but throughout our wider health and care services. It is not only a shortage of beds which exacerbate the discharge of patients from hospitals, but the shortage of nurses too. Providers have told me that they have had to close care homes as there are insufficient numbers to work there.

We already have indications that all is not good. Universities have reported a drop of 23% in applications for autumn 2017. For mature students, whose presence on these courses is much higher than in most other professions, the fall is even more acute.

Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth has made clear that an incoming Labour government will reinstate full funding for students taking health related degrees. But if Conservative ministers do insist on scrapping such support, they should at least agree that those who spend a specific amount of time working in the NHS - or supporting public services - have their tuition fees written-off. Anything less will give the impression that Theresa May's government is little more than a creature of its own dogma.

Lord Clark of Windermere is a Labour Peer and former Cabinet Minister