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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 December 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Student Doctors

1. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): What changes there have been in the number of doctors in training since 1997. [38390]

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government have increased the number of   medically qualified doctors in training and their equivalents by 40 per cent. since 1997. The number has risen from 30,915 to 43,406.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Can she confirm that the progress with training means that we are now able to recruit more doctors from the United Kingdom; that that training prepares doctors for partnership working with other health professionals, which is now a key feature of the NHS; and that some of the additional training places could be delivered by expanding medical training in Durham university beyond pre-clinical years?

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. Let me stress that we are training and employing more doctors than ever before. That is, of course, one of the major reasons why the national health service is treating more people than ever before and waiting lists have fallen to their lowest levels since records began.

Given the time of year, I take the opportunity to thank all our doctors and staff in the national health service, who give such superb service, and many of whom will be on duty over the Christmas and new year period.

On my hon. Friend's important question about Durham university, let me say that the chief medical officer and the Higher Education Funding Council have been considering whether we need a further expansion of medical undergraduate places, and we shall respond to their advice on that in the new year.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Will the Secretary of State look at the way in which this increasing number
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of   trained doctors is being deployed? A senior house officer in my constituency recently found himself in a queue along with 1,200 other applicants for a job in a Gloucester hospital. Luckily he was successful, but many at that level find it extremely difficult to get placements when so many are rushing to apply. Yet the Royal College of Physicians tells me that at registrar and consultant grade it will take until 2010 to get sufficient people in post to cope adequately with today's work load. Something, somewhere is not right in medical manpower planning.

Ms Hewitt: As I said, we are employing and training more doctors than ever before. In addition to more than   1,200 additional junior doctors, the number of   consultants has increased by nearly 10,000, the number   of GPs has increased by well over 4,000, and the number of trainee places has risen. I am happy to say that the incident that the right hon. Gentleman cites, in which 1,000 people applied for a particular job, is fairly rare—although with electronic applications it is much easier for people to apply for a much larger number of jobs than in the past. Contrary to reports in the press earlier this year, postgraduate deans across the NHS found that only about 100 of those who left the pre-registration house officer grade had difficulty in getting a job quickly. I am proud of the fact that we have so many more doctors working in the NHS, with many more still coming through in universities and in junior doctor training, and I would have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would congratulate us on that.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that none of the increases in doctors, nurses and others who work in hospitals could have been achieved without our having taken a decision in the House a few years ago to increase the amount of money that went into the health service by a tremendous amount? That was opposed by the Tories, yet they are still yapping about wanting more health provision here, there and everywhere. As somebody who has been in and out of hospital a few times myself, I can say without any chance of rebuttal that those doctors, by and large, understand that the only way to resolve the problems of the demographic changes that are taking place within society is not only to spend that money wisely but eventually, at some point in time, to find even more money, when the Tories will, as usual, run away from that.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have made more investment available to the NHS than ever before. The Conservative party, for all its complaints now, opposed that investment and has pledged further cuts in public spending should it ever return to power. The patient's passport, on which it fought the last election, and which, we understand, remains its policy, would have—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Since it is Christmas, I must allow more Back Benchers to speak.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Can the Secretary of State explain why, when there is a long-standing and endemic shortage of doctors, supply
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is artificially restricted by academic requirements for medical schools that are far in excess of those for almost every other subject?

Ms Hewitt: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should reduce the academic qualifications for people entering medicine. We keep that matter under review with the royal colleges, and as I said previously, the Higher Education Funding Council and the chief   medical officer are considering whether we need further   increases, beyond those that we have already introduced, in the number of undergraduate medical places. I think that our approach is right, however, and its success is underlined by the fact that we have more doctors in the NHS than ever before, treating more patients than ever before.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): When we are enjoying our turkey dinners over the Christmas period, I know that we will think very much of those doctors and NHS staff across the country who continue to provide an invaluable service to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. We thank them, not least those who have chosen a career in medicine, for doing that.

The Secretary of State might dispute it, but in August the British Medical Association, on the basis of a survey of pre-registration house officers, concluded that up to 2,000 of them were having serious difficulties in finding a subsequent senior house officer post. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 19 August asking her whether the   Department would put in place a mechanism for tracking senior house officers and keeping a record of the numbers who were unemployed. Will she say now whether she has done such a thing, and if so, does she know what the current figure is?

Ms Hewitt: The General Medical Council is conducting a survey of graduates from medical schools in 2003, 2004 and 2005 to establish their current employment status. The results will be available early in the new year. Following the BMA survey to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which, as he will remember, we disputed at the time, we checked with postgraduate deans across the national health service who hold complete records. They found that of 4,250 who had just completed pre-registration as house officers, only 130 or so did not find jobs quickly, a figure which fell to barely 100 a few weeks later.

Mr. Lansley: So the answer is that we do not know at the moment how many are unemployed. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a serious potential problem a little way down the line, at the point at which foundation year two comes in under the new modernising medical careers structure? At the same time, in August 2007, a large number of senior house officers who have come through the previous training route will also be looking for specialist training posts. Does she recognise that one of the ways in which we can deal with that is to designate more specialist training posts from now, so that more of those SHOs are able to go into specialist training and we do not end up with a funnel between large numbers of training doctors and a smaller number of specialist training posts?
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Ms Hewitt: I am delighted to say that the modernising medical careers initiative to which the hon. Gentleman refers, with the two-year foundation programme, will end the job competition that currently exists for people emerging from their first year. That is an improvement, as is the fact that several hundred additional first-year foundation programme posts will be available over and above the number of graduates who will leave English medical schools. In relation to the problem that might arise for senior house officers in 2007, we are working on that already with the royal colleges in order to ensure that those SHOs can move into senior and specialist training posts.

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