Nursing needs its own dedicated royal college free from union concerns to drive up standards, the chief nursing officer has said.
Giving evidence to the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust public inquiry today, Dame Christine Beasley said there were some advantages to combining the union and the professional organisation in the Royal College of Nursing but these were outweighed by the conflict of interest.
She said: “I don’t often want to emulate medicine in my role as a nurse, but I do think one of the things that we lack is an independent royal college that can do some of the things that royal colleges of doctors and medicine do.
“The RCN do a lot of work on standards but because the [professional side and union side] are linked that can have some problems when you start to want to implement it.”
In response, RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said: “The RCN provides a comprehensive service to its members, and we believe that combining the trade union function with the professional body enhances both. The RCN can work to influence on behalf of members locally and nationally, precisely because our reputation is strengthened by our work as a Royal College in using evidence to improve patient care and drive the profession forwards.”
He added: “Over the years, the RCN has represented thousands of members and receives incredibly positive feedback about the service we provide.
“The RCN has a key role in providing nursing leadership, and without our influence the profession could have been left without a voice in the face of enormous challenges.”
Dame Christine also answered questions on the future role and status of the CNO under the government’s NHS reforms, which will see her replaced by two senior nurses.
As CNO for England, she currently holds the rank of director general in the Department of Health. When she retires later this year she will be replaced by a chief nurse on the new NHS Commissioning Board and a director of nursing in the DH, the latter focusing on public health and who will only have a director level role - a rung lower than director general.
However, Dame Christine said the role was envisaged as a powerful position advising across the department, although she agreed it was “confusing” that the role badged as “chief nurse” would actually be the one sitting on the commissioning board.
The inquiry also discussed the role of healthcare assistants in the case of Mid Staffordshire FT, where they were often used as an alternative to registered nurses.
Asked whether she supported the regulation of healthcare assistants, Dame Christine told the inquiry she did not think it was a “proportionate response”.
“[Healthcare support workers] covers a really broad area and I think to regulate in terms of professional regulation the whole of this workforce I strongly believe is not proportionate in terms of patient safety and cost to whoever pays and to the individuals themselves.”
Asked by inquiry chair Robert Francis QC if she had changed her mind since the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Future of Nursing and Midwifery - of which she was a senior member - recommended regulation for HCAs, she said there could be a case for regulating a higher level of HCA but not the whole workforce.
She called for more support for whistleblowers and suggested individuals who raise the alarm should have someone from human resources or the nursing team designated to them to look after their interests.
Dame Christine is one of a number of high profile figures appearing before the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust public inquiry this month.