The Nursing and Midwifery Council has said it cannot rule out further costs to nurses if the government abandons a pledge by the Prime Minister to improve nursing regulation.
NMC chief executive Jackie Smith said she fears a bill to transform healthcare regulation will not be included in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday which she said would be “a missed opportunity”.
The Queen’s speech sets out the government’s planned legislative timetable for the next 12 months. If the bill is not included it will not be considered by parliament before the general election in May 2015.
Ms Smith said without the changes the bill would bring the NMC would continue to operate under “woefully inadequate legislation” and could ultimately mean the regulator would be forced to increase registration fees even further in the future.
The annual fee rose from £76 to £100 last year and the regulator is currently consulting on increasing it further to £120.
Ms Smith described the existing legal framework for the NMC as “expensive, time consuming and cumbersome”.
She said: “The fact of the matter is it’s not a sustainable business model and would mean we continue to plough our resources into fitness to practise, where referrals increased 14% last year.
“We couldn’t rule out further cost to registrants.”
Ms Smith said the regulator was currently forced to hold unnecessary and expensive fitness to practise hearings and needed legislation similar to that already operated by the General Medical Council.
“This is not controversial legislation and all the regulators are signed up to this. I don’t think it’s difficult for any government in office, the problem is we are in the run up to an election and there are competing priorities and this may not be at the top of their list and I think that is a missed opportunity,” she said.
Last year the NMC, which reported a deficit of £7.3m last year, held close to 2,000 hearings compared with the GMC’s total of approximately 300.
Following the publication of the Francis report last year prime minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he would ask the Law Commission “to advise on sweeping away the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s outdated and inflexible decision-making process.”
In April the commission unveiled a draft bill for a new single legal framework for the regulation of all health and social care professionals but there are fears this will not go ahead.
Ms Smith said: “I don’t think it’s difficult for any government in office, the problem is we are in the run up to an election and there are competing priorities and this may not be at the top of their list and I think that is a missed opportunity.
“Whilst the publication of the Francis report was a difficult day for everyone involved in healthcare, for us there was a glimmer of light because finally someone was going to advise the government on what we believe is woefully inadequate legislation.”
Under the changes the NMC would have the ability to make decisions faster and agree undertakings with nurses who accept their practise may be impaired without the need to hold a full hearing.
However the Professional Standards Authority, which oversees the NMC’s work, said it feared the Law Commission’s bill would be a “backward step” with less decisions made in public and changes which would make misconduct harder to prove with cases older than five years unable to be investigated.
Ms Smith said the NMC was not interested in “doing deals behind closed doors” saying: “I couldn’t agree more with the principle of holding people to account for their actions but regulators are not here to punish.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said the government was committed to changing the law on healthcare regulation when “Parliamentary time allows.”