Agency nurses cost pounds 60 an hour

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MINISTERS ARE under pressure to order an inquiry into the activities of private agencies charging hospitals up to pounds 60 an hour for supplying nurses.

At peak times, and particularly on bank holidays, specialist nurses supplied by contractors can earn up to pounds 35 an hour, about twice as much as colleagues employed by the National Health Service who are working on the same wards performing the same tasks.

The fees charged by the agencies and the relatively high pay of their nurses has been caused by a chronic shortage of personnel, according to employees' representatives.

The Royal College of Nursing has given evidence to the nurses' pay review body that nursing vacancies are now so widespread, even the premium rates on offer at agencies are failing to meet shortfalls, the RCN's Nursing Standard reports. Nursing agencies cost the NHS pounds 233m in 1996-97 and there is mounting concern that the bill could rocket. Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, has expressed his concern to Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health.

Christine Hancock, the general secretary of the RCN, said reliance on agencies would not solve the nursing shortage.

Malcolm Wing, of the public service union Unison, said the NHS was being "ripped off". Agencies were taking advantage of the shortages, he said.

Britain's largest nursing agency, BNA, said it had only increased rates to cover the holiday pay, under European law.