Wes Streeting: After leaving the National Union of Students in 2010 when my term in office expired, I worked with Martin Lewis from MoneySavingExpert.com and the coalition Government to try to communicate the facts behind the tuition fees system, so I endorse what the Minister says about getting the facts across. Martin Lewis and I are concerned that the Government are seeking to apply retrospective changes to the terms and conditions of student loans without a parliamentary

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debate and vote. We would have a much better airing of all the issues, and this issue specifically, if we had that debate and vote in the House of Commons. Will the Minister commit to that process now?

Ben Gummer: The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot commit other Ministers to debates, but I will certainly represent his concerns to the Minister for Universities and Science, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson). He makes a strong point. It seems that I am the only person in this Chamber not to have a close acquaintance with Martin Lewis, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s points, including the one about the Delegated Legislation Committee—I sat on such Committees for a few years and never received anything nearly as exciting as student grants—are represented to the Universities Minister, so that he can answer him directly.

I wish also to address the points raised by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who talked about equality impact assessments. We have worked up an assessment of the impact that the changes will have on recruitment into nursing—of course we have—as part of our policy generation. That will culminate in a full equality impact assessment and a business case, which will be published at the time of the consultation, not long from now. I hope that that will inform the discussions that take place, so that we can have a robust and evidence-based debate.

The hon. Lady talked about housing costs, which was reflected in an intervention by the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith). Housing costs are a considerable pressure for many students—not only those applying for nursing courses, but those in high-cost parts of the country. That is partly why we want to increase the amount of maintenance we can provide. To return to my central point, within the current spending envelope we can do that by such a considerable amount—25%—only through a reformed system. To do it in other ways would be prohibitively expensive, and I do not believe the Opposition have proposed that.

The hon. Lady asked about NMC registration fees. At the moment, they are incurred at the point of registration when the university course has finished and are tax-deductible. They have risen in the last year, which I know has caused disquiet among nurses. I have spoken to the regulators, including the NMC, and implored them to keep their fees at a sensible level and to avoid rises whenever possible. The NMC has had to deal with a considerable increase in fitness-to-practice cases, but I hope that with internal cost savings it will be able to mitigate further rises. I have certainly asked it to do that, although it is an independent body.

The hon. Lady cited someone she had spoken to who was, if I understood her correctly, halfway through a degree. It is important to state that the change is for new students only, so those on existing courses will not be affected.

Liz McInnes: The Minister has said that the equality impact assessment will be published at the time of the consultation, but what assessment has been made to ascertain the effect of the proposed changes?

Ben Gummer: The hon. Lady probes like an expert, but she should know that there has been a detailed assessment of the impact of the changes as part of the

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policy development, which is still taking place. When we launch the consultation, the full details of the assessment will be made public as part of the process, so she will be able to see very soon what the changes will mean.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes spoke with great eloquence about her own nursing experience. Other hon. Members may not know that she has a master’s degree connected with her nursing work. She certainly knows about the full gamut of the academic discipline of nursing, and I take her views with considerable seriousness. She was right to point out that the change is part of a wider package of reform.

Several hon. Members spoke clearly and, in one case, movingly, about people who want to become nurses but cannot, either because they did not achieve the necessary grades earlier in life to go to university—that was a failing of their education rather than because of an innate inability to be a nurse or to pass the exams—or because they have caring responsibilities. We want both sorts of people to be in nursing, because they care and because of their vocational call to be nurses. At the moment, a significant number of them are working as healthcare assistants and cannot progress to being nurses. They are prevented from doing so unless they leave the workforce, go to university and then come back into the system. Even under the existing arrangements, that makes it impossible for many of them, which is profoundly wrong.

That is why it is a priority for me, as I announced a few weeks ago, to open up an apprenticeship route to enable healthcare assistants to move from a band 3 position in the NHS to an intermediate new position—nursing associate—that is part of a vocational route to full nursing registration. The exciting thing about that is that it will provide a dual training route into nursing. There is the traditional nursing undergraduate route, which will still take three years, and there will be the new route—an apprenticeship—which will open up nursing to a whole new group of applicants who are currently precluded from achieving their dream of going into nursing and who do not even count in the statistics of those refused a place.

In the round, we are doing what I hope many Opposition Members want. I share their wish to see the diversity of the workforce, which is already one of the most diverse in the country, improve still further, and to see opportunity expanded, the quality of training improved and support given to people at university. Conservative Members also want all those things.

I appreciate the sensitive way in which hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have spoken. I also appreciate that they may disagree with how the Government want to proceed to try to improve nurse training. In the absence of alternative ideas, I believe that our proposals really are the way to expand places, improve diversity, increase opportunity, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, improve quality and provide support for those at university.

Mark Durkan: The Minister has criticised colleagues several times during the debate and said that the Government are not hearing alternatives. Will he reframe the consultation so that they can hear alternatives? It is clear that people want to work on a different premise

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and to a different agenda, with much better outcomes, including achieving the important goal of better equipment that he referred to. Widening the consultation would allow those alternatives to be heard, but the way the consultation is framed at the moment means they will not be heard.

Ben Gummer: I would be delighted to hear alternatives, and not just via the medium of the consultation. I would very much like them to be offered within the current spending envelope, but if people wish to offer alternatives outside that envelope, they must explain how much they will cost and how they will be funded. Within that spending envelope, the reforms will allow us to expand the number of places and improve quality, support and opportunity.

Liz McInnes: The Minister mentioned introducing apprenticeships to enable healthcare assistants to move on and train as nurses. Before I left the NHS, a similar scheme was being implemented. It was called “Modernising Scientific Careers” and applied to healthcare scientists. There was a long and arduous consultation process, which to my knowledge has still not been completed. How long does the Minister envisage it will take to implement the process for nurses and healthcare assistants?

Ben Gummer: We have a commitment to have 100,000 apprenticeships across the NHS in this Parliament, a significant proportion of which will be for nurses. I am approaching this at the utmost speed, and I and the Government will be judged on whether we deliver in five years’ time. I know that the hon. Lady will hold us to account. I will happily pick up on where the consultation to which she contributed has gone—I hope there is not still someone in the basement of the Department of Health working on it—and give her an answer as to what happened as a result of it.

I want to address one final result of the reforms that we are bringing in. It was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), both of whom talked about the rurality of their areas and the impact that isolation has on recruitment. I hope that, especially through the introduction of nursing associates—an apprenticeship route through to nursing—we can help address problems of recruitment and retention in specific parts of the country. I recently floated that not far from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, in Hull, where people were receptive of the idea of a different route into nursing that complemented the university route.

This is potentially an exciting moment for nursing. We will be able to expand the number of places and improve support, diversity, opportunity and quality—all things that have been achieved in the rest of the university sector. We will do so quickly, and we will do it even better if we have a good and robust consultation on the details. I will of course write to hon. Members who feel that their points have not been answered, and I once again thank the Petitions Committee for bringing the matter to the notice of the House.

7.19 pm

Paul Scully: Before I make some general points, I would like to clarify the disparity in the repayment figures that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield)

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and I were talking about. I was talking about people at the lower end of band 5. When people first join the profession, the repayment is about £5 a month. I think the hon. Gentleman was talking about the higher end of band 5. I believe that the £900 average that has been discussed relates to a point about midway through band 6, at about £31,000. We are talking about 9% of everything that someone earns over £21,000. It will be two years before this system comes in, then there will be three years of study, then it will probably take about 13 years for someone to go up the grades. It will be 16, 17 or 18 years before it is possible to talk about an average repayment of £900 a year.

This has been a fantastic debate. I am grateful to the Minister for the comprehensive response that he has given us and his commitment to answer in writing the points that have not been answered today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), as well as the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and of course the Minister, who represents Ipswich. However, the highlight for me was the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), because she argued her case incredibly articulately and brought a lot of experience to the debate. What is a fantastic addition to the House is a sad loss to nursing in my constituency, where she practised.

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It was a great shame to lose her from there, but it is fantastic to have her in the House as a colleague.

I thank the petitioners and the participants in all the listening events and various other events organised by Parliament, the Petitions Committee and a number of nursing organisations. If I may speak to them through you, Mr Evans, the Chairman of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), always describes e-petitions as the beginning of a campaign—a process—not the end of it. I know that the audience at the debate and people who have followed things on Twitter, on the television and on ParliamentLive will go away with different conclusions. They may not agree with the conclusions that we have come up with today, but I hope that they can at least take individual points, focus on them and respond in the consultation that the Government are about to undertake to help improve the policy and the lot of prospective nursing students. The proposals are about increasing the number of nurses while ensuring that they have a better level of funding for living expenses while they are studying. I am sure that people will take away enough from the debate that they will be able to raise matters with the Minister, to make the process a far more comprehensive and productive experience over the next few months.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 113491 relating to the NHS Bursary.

7.22 pm

Sitting adjourned.