Workforce planning is at risk of being abandoned by NHS chief executives burdened with 'excessive' Whitehall demands, a damning report has found.

The final report of the workforce planning inquiry carried out by the Commons heath select committee condemns the government for failing to make forecasting staff numbers a priority. Instead, continuing government interference has forced strategic health authorities to focus on budget cuts, structural changes and targets, with 'disastrous' effects on staffing, says the committee.

For example, from 1999-2004 nursing numbers increased by 67,000 - some 340 per cent in excess of original targets laid out in the NHS plan. Yet, at the same time, recruitment at many trusts was frozen, making it difficult for newly trained staff to get jobs.

The committee urged the Department of Health to improve workforce planning 'without interfering excessively with the autonomy of SHAs or pressurising them into achieving specific numerical targets, as has been the case in the past.'

It must 'stop micromanaging' and start trusting local managers, the report adds.

The committee expressed particular concern about claims made in spoken evidence by NHS London director of people and organisational development Anne Rainsberry. She said long-term planning is 'at risk of being abandoned in parts of the NHS' due to the pressure to balance books.

Scrapping the workforce development confederations in 2004 and reducing the number of SHAs last year were found to have made matters worse, not better.

Committee chair Kevin Barron said: 'The department must stop reorganising and interfering - it needs to put its own house in order first.'

Committee member Sandra Gidley added: 'The inquiry made me wonder what the purpose of an SHA is. They're meant to provide a strategic overview, but have failed dismally.'

The lack of posts has led to calls to provide a guaranteed first year of employment for professions such as physiotherapy, where 68 per cent of graduates were unable to find work last year, according to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

However,. the report was ambiguous about such a move. Committee member Jim Dowd argued: 'The principal role of the NHS is providing care for patients, not providing jobs.'

Nurses and others should be prepared to travel to where the work is as in any other industry, he added.

Responding to the report, health minister Andy Burnham said: 'We are now in a more stable position with our workforce where there is a closer match between affordable demand and supply.

'The focus now is on improving the skills, flexibility and productivity of our frontline staff.'

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