Does the government understand NHS agency contractors?

Many feared the imminent dismantling of the NHS when Jeremy Hunt assumed the position of coalition government Health Secretary in 2012.

Having co-authored a book on that exact subject, whereby his favouring health accounts over our National Health Service shone through, this wider reaction was perhaps understandable.

In the new Conservative government, Hunt has retained his position. But despite his length of time in office, his latest comments exhibit a direct lack of understanding in the way agencies supply NHS staff.

But then, the MP for Surrey South is no stranger to treading a thin line. He’s notched up a catalogue of discrepancies, and even investigations, that have raised one eyebrow or another in the Commons:

  • comments about hooliganism causing the Hillsborough disaster;
  • breaching Additional Cost Allowance rules;
  • reducing his tax bill through property dividends (to the tune of £100k plus);
  • and in 2010, the nature in which his parliamentary assistant found work in the government department of which he was head.

That he recently commented that agency workers supplied to the NHS were a ‘rip off’ should then come as no surprise.

Recruitment and Employment Confederation respond

In a response to those comments, the REC has offered to help Jeremy Hunt understand the nature of agency contractors and freelancers.

The example Hunt chose to support his terse comments are not representative of the chain of supply. Indeed, as Kevin Green pointed out in his e-mail/latter to the Secretary of State for Health, most agencies have an unbreachable framework with the NHS, whereby

a Band 5 agency nurse will earn £20-£25 per hour.

Can you really put a price on health care?

There are increments in that pay-scale, depending upon the levels of skill of the workers that agencies supply. And the agency itself will typically take between 10-20%.

That’s not excessive, when you think about it. Agencies have to cover their own costs, particularly precarious when matching NHS skills with workers on their books, and remain a profitable concern.

Their job (and that of the NHS) will become more difficult under Hunt’s proposals. He hopes to tackle unscrupulous agencies, which contribute to anywhere between £1.8-£3.3bn NHS annual spend, with the following measures:

  • doctors and nurses will have an upper ceiling on the amount they can earn;
  • any agencies that are ‘off-framework’ will not be able to supply staff;
  • any Trust deemed to be financially insecure will have a maximum spend for agency doctors and nurses.

As the recent Cancer Waiting Times report shows, the NHS is already missing targets, a situation that’s getting worse year-on-year.

With the implementation of Hunt’s new proposals, one would ask how the NHS will reverse that trend or even stay afloat. If you were cynical, you may even say that capping NHS agency spend is the whole point of the exercise.

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