Managers are attempting to 'mask' poor workforce planning by over-spending on temporary nurses, according to an influential MP.

Commons public accounts committee chair Edward Leigh MP said hospitals are using bank and agency staff 'to very high levels' and many are failing to manage their demand.

Introducing the committee's report, Improving the Use of Temporary Nursing Staff in NHS Acute and Foundation Trusts, he said: 'Too many trusts are relying on temporary nurses to mask their inability to manage permanent staff properly.

'It has taken the current financial situation in the NHS to get managers to face up to this problem.'

Jump in costs

The report concludes that trusts do not systematically monitor the costs of using temporary nursing staff, which rose by nearly 40 per cent to more than£1bn from 2000 to 2005, despite the addition of 55,000 permanent nurses.

As a proportion of total expenditure on nursing, temporary bank and agency staff remained at 9 per cent overall, but was as much as 29 per cent in some trusts.

This goes against the 2000 NHS plan, which aimed to significantly reduce demand for temporary staff.

The MPs' report advocates the use of local strategies to improve management of temporary nursing. It criticises 'poor management practices on the ward' such as 'lack of control over sick and annual leave and ineffective use of flexible working'.

Acceptable guidelines

But ward managers need better information to secure the most cost-effective nurses, underpinned by performance measures to assess suppliers of staff, it says.

It also recommends the Department of Health and NHS Employers establish guidelines for acceptable levels of temporary nursing.

However, NHS Employers deputy director Sian Thomas said: 'We've come up with benchmarks but we don't think it's our role to tell people what the most acceptable level is for them.'

She argued that most trusts have already implemented the report's proposals and that the data used by the committee was two years old.

'What's disappointing is it does not recognise that quite a lot is already being done to reduce use of temporary staffing,' she said. But she accepted the report would 'remind trusts not to be complacent'.

The report also says 39 per cent of temporary nurses are not receiving mandatory basic life support training for permanent nurses the figure is 30 per cent.

Maintaining accurate training records would help solve the problem, it suggests.