David Cameron is the only main party leader not to address delegates at this year’s Royal College of Nursing Congress, ahead of the general election.
Both prime minister Gordon Brown and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg have addressed nurses at RCN Congress over the last two days, with Mr Cameron the only major party leader not to appear. The Conservative party was instead represented by the shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Peter Carter said it was “no way a slur on nurses” that Mr Cameron was the only one of the three leaders not to speak at the conference.
Dr Carter said: “We are not going to be critical of David Cameron. He came last year. We looked at his diary and he couldn’t make it. Andrew Lansley is a very competent politician.”
Mr Lansley’s speech followed Mr Cleggs’s, which saw him receive three standing ovations and 16 spontaneous rounds of applause.
Mr Lansley was greeted with less enthusiasm but earned the best response from delegates when, like Mr Clegg, he talked of giving nurses greater responsibility and cutting bureaucracy.
He said: “The thing I have learned is that we have a million health professionals in this service who know what they are doing and need to be given the power to do it. And in order to do it I need to dis-empower hierarchy.”
He went on to talk about trying to get more clinicians into positions of responsibility and creating staff-owned community foundation trusts.
He departed from Mr Clegg on policy on how exactly locally-empowered NHS services should be organised, saying “I don’t think the local authorities should be involved in running their local NHS.”
Mr Lansley also seemed to suggest there would have to be limits on a redistribution of power between Whitehall and the regions, saying “I don’t want to see the English NHS broken up.”
His comments on a proper career structure for nurses were popular with the audience.
He told delegates: “We have to look at the extent to which there is a career pattern, rather than having you have to find your way through it. It is still nothing like the way doctors have established career paths.
He described as “outrageous” the situation that sees some qualified nurses fail to find jobs and said he would introduce a one-year preceptorship scheme for all graduates.
But in response to a Welsh student delegate, who asked what would be done to bring England into line with Wales on bursaries, he admitted “I can’t promise massive additional resources.”
Mr Lansley, however, managed to escape without being booed over the Conservatives’ plans to freeze public sector salaries from next year.