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RCN leader 'demands' safe staffing legislation across UK in wide-ranging keynote speech

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The Royal College of Nursing is to demand safe nurse staffing legislation in all parts of the UK in a new campaign it will launch this autumn, the organisation’s chief executive has announced.

As part of her keynote speech today at the RCN’s annual congress in Belfast, Janet Davies attacked “short-sighted” cost-cutting measures that had led to staff shortages, and a failure by politicians to listen to the warnings of nurses.

“We need [laws] in every country to empower nurses, contribute to safer care and better clinical outcomes”

Janet Davies

The chief executive and general secretary of the RCN said care was being “totally compromised” by staffing shortages. Evidence showed patient mortality increased with fewer registered nurses, she said.

In addition, working-age nurses were leaving the profession due to poor staffing levels, she warned, referring to recent research by the Nursing and Midwifery Council about the reasons behind nurses exiting its register.

This meant inadequate staffing levels were not only “dangerous” but contributing to a “vicious circle” of more nurses leaving, she said.

The campaign would be informed by experts across the UK, said Ms Davies, adding that the college wanted to extend the law to more settings in countries where it already existed.

“I never thought we would need to force some of our employers to give you a break, a drink and something to eat”

Janet Davies

Referring to the legislation, she said: “We need it in every country to empower nurses, contribute to safer care and better clinical outcomes for our patients and to support a nursing workforce fit for the future.”

The RCN’s new campaign follows the introduction of nurse staffing legislation in Wales that became fully effective from April 2018 – though it only currently applies to NHS adult acute medical and surgical inpatient wards in the country.

In 2016 Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced the country would follow Wales in introducing nurse staffing legislation. Ms Davies said today that the draft bill was due to be presented to parliament in the coming months.

In other parts of today’s speech, Ms Davies also criticised the government’ original plan to cut NHS staff’s holiday, sick pay and unsocial hours payments as part of the proposed pay deal in England.

But she highlighted the RCN, which negotiated the pay deal alongside other health unions, “pushed every single one of those things off the table”. The final version of the proposed deal, which is currently being voted on by union members, includes a 6.5% pay increase for most staff over three years.

She said another part of the deal that would give higher starting salaries for newly qualified nurses – rising from around £22,000 to just under £25,000 – “just may” make the profession attractive to the next generation.

Ms Davies also used her speech to call on the government to set up a new process for negotiating a pay deal for staff working in social care and other services that are publicly-funded. She has written separately today to the health and social care secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on the issue.

Meanwhile, she said the RCN would “fight the government tooth and nail” to ensure funding continued for postgraduate students and a new grant scheme was brought in for undergraduates, following the removal of bursaries in England.

She claimed that RCN pressure had led to the partial victory of “golden hello” payments for mental health and learning disability nursing postgraduate trainees being announced by ministers last week during a debate brought by Labour MPs on the plans to extend the scrapping of the bursary.

In addition, the RCN was “pushing hard” for investment in the current workforce, following cuts to national training budgets for continuing professional development funding over the past few years, she said.

Ms Davies also referred to the RCN’s recent campaign calling for employers to ensure nurses could take their breaks and drink water while on shift.

“I never thought we would need to force some of our employers to give you a break, a drink and something to eat – a basic human right,” she said. “We know our nursing teams give the best care when physically and mentally strong themselves.”

She also used the speech to highlight the importance of nursing staff from abroad being able to work in the NHS, referring to the treatment of those involved in the Windrush “scandal” in which UK residents’ legal status was questioned.

“We are proud as a profession to have the best and brightest from over 200 countries around the world”

Janet Davies

Many of those affected had been nursing colleagues, she said. “It was shocking and embarrassing to see Britain being heartless, divisive and plain old nasty.

“Our colleagues joined us here in the UK and helped to build the young National Health Service and keep it afloat for the last 70 years. We are proud as a profession to have the best and brightest from over 200 countries around the world,” she added.

Ms Davies warned the government to “get its priorities in order” over its policy to charge people from outside the European Union coming to the UK £200 per family member for each year of the visa.

She claimed the situation could worsen because ministers had not ruled out extending the rules to European nurses following Brexit.

Royal College of Nursing

Janet Davies

Janet Davies at RCN Congress 2018

“Even with the welcome announcement of ‘settled status’ for those here before we leave the EU, we cannot be satisfied that enough is being done.

“The government must use every opportunity to give all European staff peace of mind to show they are wanted, needed and can stay here,” she said.

The RCN leader said it had “never been more important for nursing to keep reaching out”. “We are a truly global profession that must remain open to learning from other countries, sharing our expertise and acting collectively to make a positive change,” said Ms Davies.

“We are proud members of a number of European alliances working together to prevent the watering down of nurse education and for the development and recognition of advanced practice across Europe.

“After Brexit, we are committed to keeping our strong links. And we have a long history of promoting nursing even further afield,” she added.

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