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'RCN squanders chance to tackle government'


At the Royal College of Nursing Congress all eyes are on the throngs of nurses debating the issues of the profession.

Here’s the usual script for the year’s biggest week in nursing. As congress opens the RCN issues a few press releases about the difficulties facing the profession and calling for government to pledge to change; a minister (or if we’re lucky a health secretary or even prime minister) arrives at congress to be tackled over these vital issues by delegates using the medium of occasional booing but always assertive interrogation. Cue lots of media coverage and an opportunity for the RCN to get its voice heard about what nursing really needs to provide safe care. The RCN usually does a better job of raising the profile of nursing at its annual congress than many other professions manage at their yearly events.

This year the formula has changed. Because in 2013, for the first time since 2007, there is no ministerial address.

Apparently, they didn’t ask to come, and the RCN didn’t invite them. The college is choosing instead to focus on its own agenda.

Shouldn’t the Royal College of Nursing be publicly trying to tackle the health secretary’s belief that nurse education is at fault?

To some extent, I can understand that. This has been a difficult time for nursing - first came the publication of the Francis report in February, forcing the profession to face up to the horrors of Mid Staffs. This was followed six weeks later by the government’s initial response, which - in contradiction with Robert Francis QC - implicitly laid the responsibility for the care failings at nursing’s door.

So the profession has to lick its wounds and consider its response. But nursing has just been cornered - and told its selection and training is flawed. Surely this is a time to come out fighting?

Shouldn’t the RCN be publicly trying to tackle the health secretary’s belief that nurse education is at fault? Isn’t it the perfect time to challenge him about the government response to Francis - and the glaring omissions - before its full response later this year?

I hope I’m wrong and the media coverage the RCN will undoubtedly get will ensure government receives a strong message from nurses. And I understand the rationale that most of the debate should centre on what nurses - and their patients - want, and that the stage should not be handed over to political spin. But here was an excellent chance to engage government in a public dialogue.

The RCN is influencing government behind closed doors, but the opportunities to do it publicly are few and far between, and this one feels like it has been squandered.

● Follow the RCN Congress news live at

Jenni Middleton, editor Follow me on Twitter @nursingtimesed


Readers' comments (27)

  • The tragedy is that nursing has the potential to be the single most influential body within the UK healthcare system. Not only because of the sheer size of the group but also because (unlike any other professional group) we have the proximity to the problem.
    Government and policy-makers are inevitably too remote from the reality of nursing practice to be able to make informed decisions about the best way forward.
    The RCN Congress is a fantastic opportunity for nurses to demonstrate the immense contribution that nurses make in the face of major financial constraints. Instead, the fatalism of perceived helplessness inhibits the profession from making the case for minimum staffing levels and supporting higher education.

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  • It would have been a fantastic opportunity to help SofS better understand the issues and maybe get him focusing on the real issues. Here's the problem though,last year the previous Secretary of State attended believing the purpose was a debate and discussion.instead it turned into the union side of the RCN taking the opportunity for a "pop" at government. The level of debate,planning and preparations both sides needs to be significantly more mature if it is ever worth a Minister participating. Hope next year that can happen because it is so important for our profession.

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  • Wait a wee minute.......First words out of George Alagiah's mouth on the BBC 6 O'Clock News tonight,

    "Nursing Leaders describe plans to change training, in the wake of the Stafford Hospital scandal, as stupid!"

    Carter, "It's the wrong answer to the wrong question."

    Is the worm finally turning?

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  • Agree that today was an opportunity to challenge ingrained and ill-informed beliefs held by some politicians re nurse education (not training). Unfortunately, it looks like it was a missed opportunity.

    Dr Carter didn't look particularly clever in any of his interviews - in fact he looked frustrated and uncertain. Cameron et al have been itching to 'have a go' at nurse education. The year of his election Cameron stood at congress and delivered his carefully scripted sound bites. One of those was the statement that there was a need to get rid of the 'fluffy' stuff in nurse education and get back to 'basics'. When challenged to explain what he meant by 'fluffy' stuff - he couldn't. He duly waffled on demonstrating that there was no substance to his sound bite.

    I think the RCN is a bit wary of inviting Politicians to congress - particularly after the mismanaged response to Bottomley several years ago. Basically it doesn't trust itself - or rather its members. A shame really. From what I've seen of the corporate RCN - I'm not impressed - they're the ones letting the membership down.

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  • The question was asked in the article;

    "Shouldn’t the RCN be publicly trying to tackle the health secretary’s belief that nurse education is at fault?"

    Good to see Nursing and the concerns expressed by nurses at the top of the news for a least one bulletin. So to an extent, this is a hopeful sign. But this needs to be followed up by some plans about what we are going to do about it. The RCN leadership is pretty weak. But why, with so many members, is this aloud to continue? Does no one vote? Oh that's right. They don't.

    As a footnote, there is plenty wrong with Nurse Education. Let's not pretend that there isn't. However, it is not the reason that things went wrong in Stafford and nothing will be achieved by making potential students work for a year a HCAs.

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  • "Shouldn’t the RCN be publicly trying to tackle the health secretary’s belief that nurse education is at fault?"

    I thought the RCN did a good job in highlighting issues of staff shortages and lack of clerical support for nurses. As regards nurse education, the Chief Nurse for England, Jane Cummings has made their job more difficult, by coming out in support of Hunt in saying that student nurses should spend a year as care assistants. With a friend like this at the head of nursing, who needs enemies!

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  • Why doesn't Mr Hunt suggest that PMs work a probationary period of one year on half pay to root those MPs who are only interested in the job as a means of getting their snout in the trough and ripping off the pubic with excessive expenses. At the same time they carry on as directors of private companies which often lead to a conflict of interest. It’s easy for Hunt to bash nurses who he sees as an easy target.
    The Francis report laid the main blame for what happen at Mid Staffs on management. Mr Hunt has shown a strange reluctance to talk about management failings and expressed confidence in Sir David Nicholson, Head of the NHS, and refuses to sack him. Sir David Nicholson appointed the Mid Staffordshire Trust’s failed chief executive Martin Yeates – even though he had no formal managerial training and who went on to sack 50 nurses. The lack of care at Mid Staffs was a direct result of bad management and nursing staff shortages, resulting from the above.

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  • Anonymous | 23-Apr-2013 2:51 pm

    I agree entirely with your first paragraph!

    I am always very worried when I see a comment that appears to deny the part played by nurses in the Stafford Hospital.

    The Francis Report laid the blame for Mid Staffs on a variety of causes and made 290 recommendations as a result. Management, systemic and cultural failures certainly played a large part in Mid-Staffs. However, it should never be forgotten that people starved to death, were drinking from vases, were given less care than animals. Hundreds, perhaps thousands lost their lives as a result of appalling care. It was families, not nurses, campaigning over a period of years who forced the Francis Inquiry. All the while, nurses were present and worked in an environment where all of this happened. Apart from the few who spoke out and/or left, what were the others doing?

    I think Jeremy Hunt is a conniving, NHS- hating little man, who seems to have an endless supply of senseless, dangerous initiatives to detract from dealing with the real issues. However, nurses really need to wise up, stop blaming everyone else and stop expecting someone else to fix things. There are half a million of us. It's high time we stood up and challenged this government. Make a list of demands. Threaten to strike (and mean it) if they are not met. They have done it successfully in other countries. We ran out of excuses for doing nothing years ago.

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  • Well said mags its time nurses stood up to the politicians it's time the RCN stood up to be counted, the RCN claims to be the biggest union for nurses in the UK, show us and the public what that means stand up and tell this government that we as nurses will take no more of the blame for all that is wrong in the NHS point the finger at the management and do something about it. Make Hunt realise that nurses have had enough ( how many times have we said that)

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  • I was glad to read that no Minister was speaking at the RCN conference this year, as i am sick of being embarassed when delegates behave like striking Dockers as soon as the Minister appears on stage ! Furthermore i dont think this behaviour helps to improve the publics opinion of Nurses either. Re students working as HCAs, some students have told me some of their cohort left because they didn like working with patients! so maybe 1 or 2 months would be a good idea.

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