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11 Mar 2008 : Column 44WH—continued

Ms Winterton: I know where the hon. Gentleman got his figures from, but that expenditure includes projects such as the channel tunnel rail link, the King’s Cross refurbishment and Crossrail. If we include major national schemes, it is true that there has been greater
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spending in London and the south-east. However, we must consider the benefits that they bring to the national economy and the fact that our constituents will travel down to London and make use of things such as the channel tunnel rail link and refurbishments of stations such as King’s Cross and St. Pancras. That is where the distortion occurs. As I have said, all the schemes to which he has pointed, particularly for the A1079, come out of the regional funding allocations. When those are combined, Yorkshire and the Humber is third in the list, not at the bottom.

I want to address the very positive speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who encapsulated what we need to do in the region, which is to consider strategic plans and to ask what changes we need to make in the Leeds city region—for example, those changes that will make a real difference to the economy. His is absolutely the right approach. My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) discussed concessionary fare schemes, the importance of ensuring that they work and that councils do not use them as an excuse to cut services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about the Humber bridge. Both quite rightly said that we have made attempts to restructure the debt. My hon. Friend made a particular point about health, which I hope to work on with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who happens to be here, which is very handy. I hope that we can look at some of the challenges facing cancer services in the area that she mentioned. I shall come back to her on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) talked about the positive approach that he and partners in York are taking to look at the challenges facing development in the centre. It was good to see the meeting that he organised to look at that positive way forward. Again, that needs to go to the regional transport board, which will consider whether it is a priority in the area for making the economic improvements that are necessary. He referred to the changes that we discussed yesterday and the funding that we have allocated, from which I am glad that York will benefit. He was absolutely right to ask what technology could be used to enhance our transport systems.

We are all aware of the importance of assessing demand more easily, considering alternative traffic routes—that is the important point about the route in Leeds—and managing congestion more effectively. That takes me back to points made by the hon. Members for Cheadle and for Scarborough and Whitby: the important question of whether widening roads or hard shoulder running would be most effective in the region. I can assure hon. Members that I am very committed to ensuring that Yorkshire and the Humber has a good transport system. We are investing more money. We need to recognise that and take the region forward.

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Nursing & Midwifery Council

12.29 pm

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to secure my first Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. Your reputation for fairness, modesty and humility precedes you, and I know that you will exhibit the same during the debate.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is matched only by you.

Mr. Devine: Matched only by myself.

The Nursing & Midwifery Council is a public body that is also registered as a charity. It regulates almost 700,000 nurses and midwives. In line with its principle of self-regulation, it is funded by those whom it regulates. Nurses and midwives currently pay a mandatory annual fee of £76. That has increased by 77 per cent. since 2007. I will return to that point.

Members of the NMC’s council are responsible for its governance and are charity trustees. They have a general duty of care to ensure that the organisation is properly run, that what it does accords with its purpose and that action is not taken beyond its constitution. There is a particular duty to ensure that its moneys are used only for legitimate purposes. As trustees of a charity, they must ensure that there is no misuse of funds, for example, through supporting activities that are outside the body’s defined activities or by incurring excessive costs that are not commensurate with the scale and needs of the fulfilment of its objectives.

As a self-governing regulator, whose purposes are public protection and the public interest, the NMC should be run with integrity, competence and transparency. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case. It appears to be a fundamentally dysfunctional organisation where the priority of those in control is to maintain the status quo at the expense of proper transparency and good governance. Its funds are being misspent and staff time is being misused. Poor financial management has resulted in nurses and midwives, who are already under financial pressure, being faced with nearly a doubling of their annual fees, which they must pay each year to be licensed to practise. Trustees are systematically prevented from doing what they are supposed to do. There appears to be an ingrained culture of bullying and racism as a means of preventing good governance in general, and in particular, any proper examination of what is going on. I will deal with those very serious allegations in detail.

Sadly, since this matter has come into the public domain, there has been an attempt by the NMC to portray me as a man running a personal vendetta. That is not the case. I trained as a nurse and represented nurses as a lay and full-time officer for more years than I care to remember. I believe that I can recognise a serious issue when it is brought to my attention. The lack of governance at the NMC is a very serious issue that we, as parliamentarians, cannot ignore.

I have six statements from former members of the council and its staff and one from a trade union representative who represented a staff member at the NMC. Those individuals live throughout the United Kingdom and I understand that other hon. Members have been approached by constituents with similar issues.

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Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I, too, have been approached with very serious allegations about probity and conduct. Whistleblowers are in an awfully difficult position. The person who approached me asked who regulates the regulator, because they have nobody to complain to.

Mr. Devine: The hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point, which I will hopefully return to at the end of my contribution.

Allow me to quote the statement from the trade union representative who represented a member of staff at the NMC:

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking up this issue. Does he agree that it is completely and utterly unacceptable that any member of a regulatory council is afraid to speak out and be identified, let alone a representative who is one of the most experienced and respected members of the profession in this country?

Mr. Devine: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I will deal with his point at the end of my contribution.

The trade union representative went on to say:

That is absolutely unprecedented.

A former member wrote to me, saying:

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Like other hon. Members who have contributed, I have a constituent who is a council board member, and they have expressed similar concerns about the organisation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that there is no agreed procedure for handling complaints at the NMC is a very serious matter that should be rectified immediately?

Mr. Devine: My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is an issue that I hope to touch on in my contribution.

Another council member wrote:

Another former member contacted me and stated:

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Another former council member wrote:

A former staff member wrote:

the new chief executive

The national committee of the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association passed a vote of no confidence in the ability of the NMC to protect the public. All those people cannot be wrong, and hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom have expressed similar concerns from their constituents. Those individuals are strong people and leaders in their chosen career field, yet every one of them, whether a past or present member, is frightened to have their name mentioned, even in this privileged place. I can think of no better proof that a culture of bullying prevails in the NMC.

The culture at the NMC is reflected by the fact that some 20 complaints and counter-complaints have been filed in the past year against eight current and two previous members of the council, and I understand that there are more complaints in the pipeline. Given that there are only 23 council members, that is completely disproportionate. The NMC’s expenditure on outside legal advice is also excessive. Legal fees are paid not to address the organisation’s proper purposes, but to deal with, and often to create and pursue, such spurious complaints. In 2007, legal expenditure on governance issues and the costs of investigating complaints in relation to council members seeking transparency and satisfactory explanations were well over £120,000.

The expenditure continues, and it is now significantly higher. The money is nurses’ and midwives’ money, paid in the name of public protection, and its misuse raises serious issues for public protection. Costs as high as £250,000 to £300,000 equate to the annual registration fees of 3,200 to nearly 4,000 nurses. The NMC’s reaction the first time that I raised the matter in the House was to seek legal advice. It is a bizarre organisation.

The concern is not only that money is being spent on complaints, bullying and so on but that staff and council members’ time is dominated by those matters rather than by the organisation’s proper purposes. Staff whose faces do not fit are subject to disciplinary action, paid off and required to sign confidentiality agreements. I have been told of two recent such payments of £100,000. The absence of transparency, responsiveness and integrity in the organisation means that it is not possible to hold the chief executive to account and that the governing body is not given the information that it needs for effective decision making.

I understand that the NMC’s approach to governance is also very worrying. It is not unusual for the decisions of the council and its committees to be ignored or circumvented, and standing orders are routinely put to
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one side to suit the position of the chief executive and prevent the council’s consideration of legitimate business. In a formal note, the chair of the council’s audit committee suggested that certain council members should be barred from participating in a council debate on the basis of their past voting patterns. I find that unbelievable. When two respected lay members of the council resigned last year, the Appointments Commission was told about it and invited to intervene, but did absolutely nothing. It went ahead with replacing the two people who had resigned, despite their suggestion that it should not do so until the reasons for their resignation had been properly investigated.

We have moved on, rightly, from a situation in which professions are allowed to regulate in their own self-interest. If self-regulation is to be sustainable, it must involve accountability and the highest possible standards of ethical behaviour and competence. An important point has been made by hon. Members about the position of non-executive trustees in bodies such as the NMC. Trustees are protected against discrimination only. Because they are not employees, no other legislative protection or redress is available to them, and they can be very exposed. Unlike employees, trustees and public office holders who blow the whistle have no legal protection.

The NMC was set up to protect patients, raise standards in the profession and act in the public interest. Unfortunately, it is acting only for a small group of staff. Our first priority must be to rebuild the NMC on a sound footing, but it is equally important to look to the future. The House, the nursing and midwifery professions, other professions and the public need assurances that lessons will be learned from the NMC debacle. I say in a comradely way to the Minister that, after parliamentarians from throughout the United Kingdom have expressed concern about the workings of an organisation that regulates 700,000 nurses, it is not good enough to say that the matter has nothing to do with Parliament, and I hope that he will not go down that road.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on raising this important and worrying issue for discussion. I know that he has much personal experience in such matters from his early years as a psychiatric nurse and his later trade union career with the Confederation of Health Service Employees and then Unison. I take this opportunity to reassure him and the other hon. Members present that the Government take the matters that he has brought before us extremely seriously. The governance of the Nursing & Midwifery Council is of great importance, as is the governance of all health professional regulators.

The majority of concerns raised by my hon. Friend relate to the internal proceedings and management of the NMC, which has been charged with operating in an atmosphere of bullying, harassment and institutionalised racism. The NMC is, as he acknowledges, an independent professional regulatory body, and the Government therefore have no power to intervene directly in its internal operations. However, the situation has been causing serious concern for some time, and I know that he does not make such charges lightly. Although I am sure that he will accept
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that it would not be right, even if it were possible, for me to judge or pre-judge goings-on at the NMC, as well as that some would challenge the allegations that he has made today, the Government will do what we can to help the organisation to get out of the problems that it faces and rebuild its members’ confidence.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the NMC itself has instigated an inquiry into the criticisms that he outlined. As I understand it, that will include asking an independent, external party to investigate the charge of institutional racism. I understand that the NMC has invited him to meet its members, visit the organisation and discuss his concerns. However, given the seriousness of the breakdown of relationships within the NMC and the level of concern expressed by hon. Members, an internal inquiry is not likely to satisfy the NMC’s critics. That is why I will write today to the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence and the Charity Commission to encourage them to play a role in resolving the long-standing problems at the NMC.

The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence is the independent umbrella body that oversees the operation of the various health professions’ regulatory bodies. It is already undertaking its annual performance reviews of all the regulators, the results of which are due to be published in the summer, but because of the seriousness of the situation at the NMC, I will ask the CHRE if it is possible to expedite its review of that organisation, including addressing the crucial question whether the organisation is fulfilling its statutory functions. I understand that a number of people involved in the NMC’s internal rows have asked the Charity Commission to intervene. I welcome that move, and have written today to the Charity Commission to say so.

It important to me as well as to thousands of nurses and midwives that the workings of the NMC and all regulators should be open and transparent. That is crucial to maintaining patient and public confidence. If neither the NMC’s internal processes nor the measures that I have just outlined are sufficient to resolve the problems at the council, the Government would not rule out formally asking the Privy Council to investigate. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that that would be a nuclear option.

In the longer term, the Government are taking a number of other measures. My hon. Friend will be aware of the passage through Parliament of the Health and Social Care Bill; indeed, it was on Report that he raised with me his concerns about the NMC. The Bill is part of a programme of legislation on matters relating to professional regulation that the Government introduced after the publication of our White Paper “Trust, Assurance and Safety” in February last year.

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