Shortage of nurses leads to calls for higher pay

Statistics published in August 1998 reveal falling numbers of nurses qualifying for the profession in the UK, at a time when the Labour Government has confirmed that it will be keeping a tight rein on public sector pay.

At the end of July 1998, after a meeting with Trades Union Congress (TUC) officials, the Chancellor of the Exchequer rejected their request for an increase in public investment of GBP 3 billion in order to create jobs. The Chancellor made it clear that he would be keeping a tight rein on public sector pay and there would be no easing off of pay restraints in the sector.

It was in this context that statistics were published in August by theCentral Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting, showing the lowest number of nurses qualifying for a decade. This has caused concern over why people are failing to join the nursing profession. The obvious concern is that wages for nurses are not high enough to attract people. There has also been concern that male nurses receive a much better deal than their female colleagues, despite the fact that males make up only a small proportion of the profession.

The statistics highlight that the number of nurses qualifying in 1998 is only 16,382 compared with 17,894 in the previous year and 22,164 in 1991. The 1998 figures would have been even worse, were it not for an increase in the number of overseas trainees who now make up more than a quarter of all those being admitted to the professional register. Furthermore, more than half of those on the register are over 40 years old while only 3.6% are under 25 years old. This is causing concern that the shortages will become even more severe as ever-increasing numbers reach retirement age. The only area where there seemed to be an increase was in the number of male nurses.

Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union, commented that "nurses must be paid in line with people in similar professions, otherwise they will continue to leave nursing or not enter in the first place." The Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, agreed that pay was a crucial factor in attracting recruits to nursing but said that it was a matter for the independent Pay Review Body for this group to decide. He did, however make it clear that he wants to abandon the present system of staged increases. In the past four years, both Conservative and Labour governments have effectively reduced the annual pay awards recommended by the nurses' pay review bodies by staging the awards (UK9702104F).

Although the Government is unlikely to increases pay rates by much, in the July 1998 spending review (UK9807140N), Mr Dobson pledged to fund an extra 15,000 nurses and to open up an extra 6,000 new training places over the next three years. Other measures are aimed at making it easier for females to build a career, given that it has been found that male nurses are more likely to climb the career ladder than their female colleagues.

Health minister, Baroness Haymen, commented: "Measures forming part of a nurse recruitment and retention drive we launched in March this year include the promotion of flexible working patterns and other 'family friendly' employment policies, such as flexible shifts and nursery provision."

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