Scandal of the Cowboy Nurses; Patients' Lives Put in Peril as Rogue Agencies Send Criminals to Work on Wards

Article excerpt

Byline: JENNY HOPE

PATIENTS' lives are being put at risk by cowboy nursing agencies employing unqualified staff and nurses with criminal records.

A Daily Mail investigation has revealed a catalogue of abuse and incompetence in agencies supplying many thousands of nurses to Health Service hospitals and nursing homes every day.

Last night the Government promised a review of legislation with the aim of tightening the rules and cracking down on rogue agencies.

The agency nursing sector has mushroomed in the last decade to fill acute staffing shortages caused by a massive growth in independent healthcare and a sharp drop in recruits. Health authorities and hospitals have cut regular staffing levels to a bare minimum to reduce costs.

Now agency nurses can account for more than a third of staff on duty in hospitals. In nursing homes, particularly in the independent sector, the figure can reach 80 per cent.

An estimated 700 nursing agencies supply NHS hospitals across the country, with the majority observing the regulations and providing high standards.

They are regulated by the 1957 Nursing Agencies Act under which local authorities are responsible for granting annual licences. But there is no effective provision for checking nursing standards and no central register of approved agencies.

Councils lack powers to act when things

By JENNY HOPE Medical Correspondent go wrong andthe maximum fine for breaching the rules is a paltry [pounds sterling]400.

The result is a chaotic and corrupt system with rogue operators setting up virtually unchallenged.

There is a thriving black market in qualified nursing registrations, where a nurse's individual number can fetch up to [pounds sterling]30,000.

Rogue agencies are accused of employing nurses with criminal records, or working cash-in-hand and employing illegal immigrants without work permits.

In many cases, the staff they send on to the wards may not even be nurses.

One nursing agency is about to lose its licence after a Daily Mail investigation revealed scores of complaints, including assaults on patients.

Heulwen Mary Smith, an experienced nursing agencies inspector for several London boroughs, has been shocked by the abuses she has uncovered.

'Patients are suffering undue pain from the negligence of some rogue nursing agencies,' she said.

'Many agency nurses, often so-called qualified ones, do not have the slightest idea about hygiene and infection.

'I have seen inexperienced agency nurses failing to do even the most basic things like wash their hands. …