The Department of Health is planning to axe its nursing, midwifery and allied health professions policy unit.
The proposal will see the loss of seven staff including the unit’s head David Foster. The former deputy chief nursing officer will retire in September.
“Ministers will ask for the answers they want rather than the breadth of balance they should have”
Also affected are the DH’s professional adviser on mental health, learning disability and dementia care Ben Thomas, nursing and midwifery adviser Jean Christensen and AHPs adviser Alison Raw.
In addition, three support staff have also been formally told their roles are at risk of redundancy, according to Nursing Times’ sister title Health Service Journal.
The plan is a consequence of the “DH 2020” cost cutting drive, which will see the department lose approximately 700 posts in a bid to reduce its running costs by 30% over the next five years.
Nursing Times reported in April that leading nurses had serious concerns about a loss of vital nursing expertise and influence over policy at the highest level after the DH outlined the proposals.
The loss of the nursing policy unit comes three years after Sir Robert Francis QC criticised the lack of a strong nursing voice in the NHS and called for the profession’s voice to be strengthened.
One DH insider said the proposals were being made because “the new department does not see the need for embedded professional advice, except for that from the chief medical officer and chief social worker.”
The source added: “There was no consultation with staff or unions on the 2020 changes to start with… staff were told that was what was going to happen.
“If you have internal professional staff helping policy teams with advice, then you get adherence to the civil service code which is about impartiality, objectivity, honesty and integrity,” they told Health Service Journal.
“If you rely on people outside the department you might get their partial, biased opinions with no evidence and balance. Ministers will ask for the answers they want rather than the breadth of balance they should have. Where are the checks and balances,” the source warned.
The proposals have sparked criticism from unions with Unison’s head of nursing Gail Adams arguing on social media that ministers needed “sound objective impartial advice” and that scrapping the unit was “plain stupid.”
She described the scrapping of the unit as “an appalling message to the [nursing] profession.”
A DH spokeswoman refused to answer specific questions about the proposals but said: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring the voice of nursing is heard loud and clear in all of our policy making.
“Ministers meet the chief nursing officer and other nursing experts on a regular basis. All of the changes we are making through our DH 2020 programme are being done transparently and following extensive engagement with our staff,” she said.
The DH’s 2020 programme followed the decision by chancellor George Osborne to re-draw the NHS ringfence excluding the DH and other arm’s length bodies from the protected NHS budget.
The DH is planning to relocate staff from three offices to a new address at 39 Victoria Street as well as reducing its headcount from 2,000 to less than 1,400 by 2017.
Professor Viv Bennett previously held the joint role of director of nursing at the DH and Public Health England. However, in January 2015 she became solely based with PHE.
The chief nursing officer for England was also formerly based at the DH but the role was moved to the national commissioning body NHS England, when it was created under the coalition government’s healthcare reforms.