Published: 03/10/2002 Volume II2, No.5825 Page 11

The NHS director of human resources was brutally frank on the 'vicious campaign'against the new consultant contract and poor recruitment results.

Carol Harris reports from HSJ 's 'Building a world class workforce'conference The myth of human resources as a soft topic died a quick death last Wednesday when NHS director of human resources Andrew Foster decided it was time to talk tough.

The day before the ballot for the new consultant contract began, Mr Foster chose to use his platform at HSJ 's 'Building a world class workforce' conference, which was supported by Veredus Executive Resourcing, to take a stand against what he called a 'vicious' campaign by parts of the British Medical Association to undermine the deal on the table.

He said some sections of the BMA had suggested that under the new deal consultants would fall victim to a 'bullying bunch of managers'. And he urged managers to spend the next few weeks raising the issue of the contract at every opportunity.

Mr Foster spelt out an uncompromising message to senior doctors, echoing the hard line being taken by health secretary Alan Milburn, and stressed that the consultant contract would not be renegotiated - even if it is rejected in its current form.

It wasn't the only topic on which Mr Foster was prepared to confront brutal facts. He was frank about the difficulties the NHS is facing in meeting recruitment targets. 'We are behind on this year's workforce target and we have a bigger target set for next year.

Targets for nursing and therapy staff are met, but we are 900 behind on the consultant trajectory and 800 behind on the target for GPs.'

He said managers would have to 'take some risks' in order to deliver.

It was refreshing to learn that workforce issues were the 'priority of priorities' for ministers, too. And, he told delegates, that sentiment goes all the way up to the prime minister. For the next six months, he said, ministers will focus on pay modernisation, building workforce capacity and implementing the EU working-time directive.

Pay modernisation will aim eventually to bring in a common pay spine through the new general medical services contract for GPs, Agenda for Change and the new consultant contract.

'Agenda for Change gives us the levers to re-engineer the workforce and enables us to break down the barriers to change. It will need another 'yes' vote from the workforce. Early implementation is set for 2003, but all can begin to use the job evaluation system.'

And he conceded: 'Primary care is the area of least advance.We still have a long way to go on this.'

He said that the working-time directive would bring the opportunity to do many other things, such as developing clinical responsibilities for members of the team other than doctors.

'The effect of the directive will be to bring different compliance actions according to specialty, size and local configuration.'

In the long term, top priorities for the NHS include following through with the delivery plan in Improving Working Lives, improving morale through staff involvement and engagement and building HR capacity. He said that next year's star-ratings will look at whether all staff in a trust have opportunities for flexible working and personal development plans.

'This will be hard - I have been to the training. Being a model employer and achieving 100 per cent accreditation is the aim.'

NHS Professionals, the Department of Health's recruitment agency for NHS staff, is another area which is struggling ('Holiday package', news focus, 19 September).Mr Foster admitted:

'It has been a matter of too far, too fast... There is still a vast amount to do over the next two years and changing roles and relationships will be key in achieving the goals.'

But he added: 'There will be rewards and interventions to those who succeed.do not underestimate the commitment from government to deliver - and on time.'

DoH nursing officer Nola Ishmael said that campaigns to attract more recruits had led to a record increase in applications for nurse training: 'The staffing challenge of finding an additional 20,000 nurses by 2004 has been achieved. We also need an additional 35,000 nurses by 2008. The emphasis has been on returners because it takes relatively little time to get them into the workforce.'

International recruitment was another important resource, adding to the numbers of nursing staff and increasing diversity, she said. Nurses trained abroad needed a comprehensive induction programme, but should also be shown tolerance and respect by the organisation.

'That includes being called by your name and not having it shortened to something which sounds convenient in English. Or even worse by your country of origin such as 'the Filipino nurse'.'

Head of NHS recruitment Liz Eddy told delegates that flexibility was a key issue, even though many people had not heard of the NHS policy document Improving Working Lives. 'The new national 2002 recruitment campaign will have television advertising, poster campaigns and a pack which includes a CD so you can put local information on to the posters.'

But Ms Eddy said that some issues in recruitment were neither financial nor technical, but boiled down to basics. She asked delegates: 'If someone who wants to return to work contacts your organisation, is it easy for them to get in touch with the right person?'