Hunt caps NHS agency staff spend

2 Jun 15

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has ordered a crackdown on the use of agency staff in the NHS, accusing agencies of ‘ripping off’ the health service.

Hunt today set out new rules governing the use of agency workers, which was estimated to have cost the NHS £3.3bn last year.

Under the plan, a maximum hourly rate will apply to payments by all NHS bodies to agencies for doctors and nurses, while the use of firms not on approved NHS procurement frameworks will be banned.

Hospital trusts deemed to be in financial difficulty will be given a cap on agency staff spending, while all consultancy contracts over £50,000 will need to be approved centrally.

Hunt said the government was backing NHS England’s Five Year Forward View, and planned to increase spending by £8bn by 2020.

However, the service needed to ‘deliver its side of the bargain’ by eliminating waste, and spending on agency staff has risen by £1.5bn in three years, he said.

‘The path to safer, more compassionate care is the same as the path to lower costs.

‘Expensive staffing agencies are quite simply ripping off the NHS. It’s outrageous that taxpayers are being taken for a ride by companies charging up to £3,500 a shift for a doctor. The NHS is bigger than all of these companies, so we’ll use that bargaining power to drive down rates and beat them at their own game.’

The spending cap will initially apply to nursing staff but would then be extended to other clinical, medical and management and administrative staff. Maximum rates and spend will be reduced over time as hospitals move towards employing more permanent staff, which Hunt said would also improve patient care.

Responding to the announcement, NHS Employers said it was welcome that there was a focus by government on the agency market.

Chief executive Danny Mortimer said: ‘Patient safety is our absolute priority and it’s important to remember that agency staff are useful for ensuring continuity and quality of care. In controlled, smaller numbers agency and bank staff will have a long-term future helping the NHS respond to fluctuations in demand.’

Although Mortimer highlighted there was potential for NHS trusts to reduce spend on agency workers through greater use of flexible working and arrangements with local agencies, it was also likely they would sometimes need to recruit permanent staff from other countries.

‘This is a responsible approach to recruitment and will need continued support from the government and other bodies,’ he added.

Trade union Unite said the ‘bloated NHS agency staff bill’ was a scandal that needed to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

Unite’s head of health Barrie Brown said the union had raised the issue with Jeremy Hunt on January 20.

‘The health secretary has been slow to get to grips with the spiralling out of control agency budget,’ he stated.

‘Unite wants the agency bill slashed and permanent nursing staff and other health professionals employed with proper training and development in place, coupled with robust recruitment and retention policies.’

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