The Royal College of Nursing has confirmed that it will begin to reform its structure later this year to divide oversight of professional nursing and trade union issues.
The RCN, which has more than 400,000 members, will establish two committees with directly elected members that will lead separately on the two elements of its work.
“We believe this will strengthen our professional role and our trade union role”
The committees will sit beneath the RCN’s council, which will be reduced from 29 members to 17, confirming moves to finalise a process of structural change that have been underway for several years, stretching back to 2009.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said “redesigning the governance structures will enable a stronger nursing voice”, and that the changes were not about splitting the college, but “strengthening the two roles and allowing more members to be involved in our work”.
The college asked Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust chair Elizabeth Butler to lead a review its governance structures in 2014, culminating in an engagement document the following year and a report entitled the Case for Change.
The review’s recommendations were then consulted on and ultimately agreed at its annual general meeting in June 2016, and are now set to be implemented this year.
All members will be allowed to stand for election to both committees and to vote electronically after nominations open at this year’s RCN congress in May.
The committees are expected to begin their work in January 2018 and will be designed to lead much of the college’s day-to-day work, according to Health Service Journal.
Ms Davies said both committees would have the budget and power to run separate campaigns and both would have a voice within the RCN, which she will continue to lead with the council.
She said: “We believe this will strengthen our professional role and our trade union role and will add more rigour in these two areas. The committees will be run separately and any conflicts will be managed but each will have a voice; this already happens.
“It strengthens the nursing voice and means there are going to be more ways for our members to be part of the governance of the organisation,” she added.
Separating the professional and trade union roles has become more of an issue for the RCN since Sir Robert Francis QC recommended it formally split its responsibilities in his high profile 2013 report into care failings at the former Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.
The report said nursing staff at the trust “did not receive effective support or representation” from the RCN, and that there was an “inherent conflict between the professional representative and trade union functions of the RCN which may diminish the authority of its voice on professional issues”.
His recommendation was subsequently seized on by the Department of Health, sparking a war of words with the college and leading to a debate at the RCN’s annual conference that year, after which a split was overwhelmingly rejected by members.
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However, the topic was also raised back in 2011 during evidence sessions for the Francis inquiry. Nursing needed its own dedicated royal college free from union concerns to drive up standards, the chief nursing officer said at the time.
Giving evidence to the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust public inquiry, Dame Christine Beasley said there were some advantages to combining the union and the professional organisation in the RCN, but these were outweighed by the conflict of interest.