Legislation for safe nurse staffing in England should have been included within the government’s priorities in the King’s Speech today, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said.
Concerns have also been raised around the government’s ‘lack of progress’ on reforming the Mental Health Act and the ‘omission’ of a ban on conversion therapy.
Giving his first speech to parliament today, King Charles III delivered the government’s priorities and plans for the months ahead, including action to ‘transform’ the long-term workforce of the NHS and the introduction of controversial minimum service levels during strikes.
Marking the first King’s Speech over 70 years, His Majesty pledged his ministers would focus on ‘safeguarding the health and security’ of the British public for ‘generations to come’.
This included working to deliver on plans to ‘cut waiting lists and transform the long-term workforce of the National Health Service’, the King said.
While this meant delivering the promises of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan published earlier this year, this also included the controversial introduction of minimum service levels legislation during strikes.
In addition, his majesty made reference to the introduction of legislation to create ‘a smoke free generation, by restricting the sale of tobacco so that children currently aged 14 or younger, can never be sold cigarettes and restricting the sale and marketing of e-cigarettes to children’ – a proposal outlined by the prime minister last month.
The King also suggested ‘record levels of investment are expanding and transforming mental health services to ensure more people can access the support they need’.
However, RCN chief nurse Professor Nicola Ranger stressed the government should have used the speech to ‘address issues facing the health care workforce, including legislating for safe staffing’.
She warned England was ‘an outlier within the UK now and countries around the world are moving ahead with laws of this kind’.
‘The Prime Minister has failed to deliver legislation to address the crisis in the nursing workforce and our NHS and patients will continue to pay the price until at least the next election,’ she warned.
Nurses are faced with ‘unsafe numbers of patients’ and are ‘raising the alarm’ over record staff shortages, added Professor Ranger.
Nursing staff and the services they provide ‘are close to broken’, stressed Professor Ranger, who added that the upcoming autumn statement was ‘now the only remaining lever for government to boost the NHS in the year to the election’.
The RCN has been campaigning for several years for legislation to guarantee nurse staffing levels in England across all sectors and settings.
Wales became the first country in the UK to introduce a safe nurse staffing law in 2016. Safe staffing across health and care settings became law in Scotland in 2019, but implementation has been so far delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. And in Northern Ireland, the RCN is holding the executive to account for the delivery of a safe staffing framework.
While the RCN thought it was ‘positive’ the government was progressing with anti-smoking plans, Professor Ranger said the college was ‘deeply concerned on the lack of progress on reform to the Mental Health Act’.
The speech did not include any mention of the Mental Health Bill, indicating reforms proposed in last year’s draft bill may be postponed.
It was also ‘bitterly disappointing that the ban on sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy has been dropped’ from the King’s Speech, said Professor Ranger, having been pledged in both the 2021 and 2022 Queen’s Speech.
Meanwhile, Health and Social Care Committee chair Steve Brine was also disappointed by the omission of reforms to the Mental Health Act.
‘I welcome the introduction of legislation to create a smoke-free generation by restricting the sale of tobacco, and to safeguard children from the harmful effects of vaping by restrictions on the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes,’ said Mr Brine.
‘However, it is disappointing that the government has failed to bring forward legislation to overhaul the Mental Health Act.’
He stressed that planned reforms in the draft Bill ‘would outlaw the inappropriate detention of people with learning disabilities and autism’.
‘Without change, too many people will continue to be held in secure units, often for years at a time. These reforms are long overdue,’ added Mr Brine.
Also responding to the King’s Speech, Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, said the failure to bring forward the Mental Health Bill was ‘a missed opportunity for the government’.
‘The 40-year-old Mental Health Act desperately needs updating so that patients can be at the heart of how they access care and treatment,’ she said.
NHS Providers was also ‘deeply concerned by the omission of a ban on conversion therapy’.
‘This was a chance for the government to use the full protection of the law against any risk of widely discredited, dangerous and discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ+ community,’ said Ms Cordery.