The Liberal Democrats have pledged to reinstate student bursaries if the party were to win the election and to also increase NHS nurse pay in line with inflation, but said they would not make staffing laws an immediate priority.
At the Royal College of Nursing’s annual conference in Liverpool today, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron revealed some of the party’s major pledges affecting nursing during a keynote speech.
“We should be supporting more people into these vital professions – but instead this government are putting up greater barriers”
He said pre-registration nurse funding would be brought back in England by reinstating the £10bn investment that had been lost due to the government’s removal of bursaries.
This would be part of the £48bn the party had pledged for the NHS over the coming parliament, of which £6bn a year and £30bn in total would be raised through increasing income tax by 1p in every pound, said Mr Farron.
In a later statement issued by his party, Mr Farron said the government’s decision to remove bursaries for nursing students was “clearly wrong,” noting the “drastic fall” in the number of people applying to courses this year.
“We should be supporting more people into these vital professions – but instead this government are putting up greater barriers,” he said.
After his speech, the Lib Dem leader was later asked by a nurse at the conference what action his party would take to ensure safe nurse staffing levels.
“I would love us to be in a situation where we can bring in a [staffing] law… but I want to make sure the money and the nurses are there in the first place”
Mr Farron said it was “undoubtedly” his ultimate goal to replicate the workforce policy work in Wales – which this year became the first country in Europe to bring in legislation on nurse staffing.
However, he said his “concern” about “setting a target before the money is there” was that the target “wouldn’t be met”.
“First and foremost we need to pay nurses enough so we can recruit and retain them – and you need the investment in care and health more generally to mean you’ll bring people in and, therefore, safe staffing levels are something you can actually achieve,” he told the conference.
Earlier today, the Liberal Democrats announced a pledge to both remove the 1% annual pay cap on public sector wages and also increase salaries in line with inflation – leading to an estimated wage increase of £527 a year for nurses by 2021, according to the party.
Mr Farron later clarified to Nursing Times that “in the short-term” the Liberal Democrats would not be introducing nurse staffing legislation, but would “for certain” commit to this at some point in the future.
“With thousands of nursing vacancies, 8% of nurses leaving the profession every year – not counting those who retire – and all the issues about loss of income and loss of bursaries, that is a reminder that we need to fix the problems, not the target,” he said.
“I would love us to be in a situation where we can bring in a law and create that target, but I want to make sure the money and the nurses are there in the first place, so we don’t miss it” he added.
When asked by Nursing Times whether he acknowledged more nurses might be encouraged to come back to the profession if laws were in place to improve staffing – as had been the case in other countries with similar legislation – Mr Farron said: “It’s chicken and egg, I take the point.”
He noted that in Wales it was the Welsh Liberal Democrats who had led the introduction of the new staffing legislation.
“I’m very proud of that but we are in a situation though where if we set the target there aren’t the nurses there, and we need that investment first,” he told Nursing Times.
During his conference speech, the party leader was also asked whether he would appoint a minister for mental health if the Liberal Democrats won the election. Mr Farron said he would “for certain” ensure this role was created.
He also later told Nursing Times that the decrease in the number of mental health nurses since 2010 would be reversed in part by the increase in pay the party had pledged for public sector workers, as it would help to recuirt and retain more staff.
RCN Congress 2017