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RCN leader asked to justify lack of minister at congress

The chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing has defended his decision not to invite a minister to speak at this year’s congress, after suggestions it may have been a “tactical blunder”.

Instead, Peter Carter said the college would invite the political parties to set out their policies on nursing at a special event just over a month before the general election, which is due to be held in May next year.

“You really need to put people on the spot and say: ‘what are you going to do’”

Peter Carter

Mr Carter was speaking last night at a Question and Answer session with RCN members at the college’s annual conference in Liverpool.

One speaker said there was a “feeling among some of the membership” that the RCN had made a “tactical blunder” in having its biggest event of the year “and not a politician in sight”.

Mr Carter said he took “full responsibility” for suggesting to the RCN’s council that it “would not be a good idea to have politicians here”. “I’m happy to be challenged on it,” he said.

“Any politician that’s in opposition would have come here and would have promised you anything you wanted to hear,” he said.

He added: “Those that are in power might well have come and said ‘I know it’s tough but stick with us and there will be green shoots appearing’, and all the rest of it.”

Mr Carter went on to explain that the RCN planned to hold a hustings event about six weeks before the next general election.

“That’s the time to say to people: ‘right if you get elected in six weeks’ time what are you going to do the day after in relation to nurses, healthcare assistants and the NHS’,” he told conference delegates.

Mr Carter said health secretary would be invited, along with his Labour shadow, a representative from the Liberal Democrats and “any other party that’s involved” – a suggestion that the invitation could be extended to Ukip.

He said he also wanted several hundred RCN members to attend.

In addition, Mr Carter called on RCN branches to organise their own hustings with local election candidates. He said: “You really need to put people on the spot and say: ‘what are you going to do’.

In response to a question from Philip McCaffrey, of the RCN’s Cardiff and the Vale branch, Mr Carter added that there would “almost definitely” be something similar organised in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The attendance and non-attendance of government ministers at congress has become a major talking point in recent years.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt did not attend last year’s congress either. Instead he and Mr Carter engaged in a public war of words over the Francis report’s implications for nursing and the RCN.

A furore erupted in 2011 when Mr Hunt’s predecessor became the first health secretary in eight years not to give a keynote speech to the conference.

Andrew Lansley turned down an invitation and sent a junior minister instead. But after being accused of snubbing nurses, a special seminar was arranged at which he took questions from a small group of RCN members.  

Mr Lansley subsequently gave a speech at the 2012 event, and both he and the prime minster addressed the 2010 conference, which was held in the middle the last general election campaign.   

Labour health secretary Patricia Hewitt was famously heckled and slow hand-clapped by congress in 2006, after she made positive claims about the state of NHS pay and job security.

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