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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham): Pathetic.

Mr. Evans: What is pathetic is the way in which three non-executive directors who had done their job and blown the whistle on the chief executive who was mismanaging the trust were sacked by the Secretary of State, even though their view was endorsed by two reports.

I am asking the Minister to ensure that the truth comes out. The only way in which he can assure us of that is by immediately setting up a full independent inquiry to find out exactly what has gone on.

9.24 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on the care and precision with which he ordered his account of what I believe is a scandalous situation in the Guild trust. He put on the record in fine detail a tale of growing difficulty that turned to concern, worry and despair for the non-executive directors as they went about their business. The people we are talking about are not party political appointees: they are citizens, chosen and approved by the Secretary of State as suitable people to be the representatives of the public in looking after the activities of the health trust.

I declare an interest in the sense that I am a non-executive director of a public limited company. Part of my role is to ensure that I represent the interests of the shareholders. If those who are in a paid managerial

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position on the board of the company do something that they should not, or go against the requirements of company law, I must be prepared to be a whistleblower and take a stand against anything that threatens the well-being of the company concerned. I am pleased to say that, so far, I have not seen any examples that would cause me to exercise that responsibility.

I talked to Mrs. Walton and Mrs. Jolly at length on the telephone when they first drew my attention to the concerns that had been well reported in our local newspapers, especially the Lancashire Evening Post. Like any Member of Parliament, I am used to talking to people, and I heard much concern from Mrs. Walton and Mrs. Jolly about the public interest. I heard that they had been given those public appointments, and then done what they thought was right and what they had been appointed for. They did not like the way in which the trust was being run, so they found ways, in the context of the report on the Holden case--as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has mentioned--to investigate the criticisms that were made.

The two ladies went to the regional health authority and sought its advice on what they should do. The advice was clear: they were correct to ask for a further independent assessment. The two ladies did not rush into public print. When the Holden report was made available, they did not immediately table a motion of no confidence in the chief executive and others. Instead, they meticulously went about their business, as good directors should, and asked for an independent assessment of what had happened in the trust. They did not do that off their own bat, or try to find people who would write the report they wanted. Instead, they sought two people of knowledge and skill and found Galbraith and Campbell, both of whom had had considerable experience in the health service and who wrote the report.

I would have thought that the ladies were correct in the carrying out of their public duties. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, in his closing remarks, touched on the central issue arising from the sacking of the three non-executive directors, and that is the question of what those people are supposed to do. What is their purpose? They are appointed to help to run and manage health trusts. However, the three in question were sacked for reasons as yet undisclosed.

We have read the reports in the newspapers, and my hon. Friend mentioned the claim that a fresh start was needed, and that there was disunity and disharmony on the board. All those reasons may be correct, and given the way in which the board was riven after the publication of the Galbraith and Campbell report, I am not surprised. However, sacking the non-executive directors was a funny way in which to treat honest people who were correctly executing their public duties. They were sacked unceremoniously, without any hearing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said, Mrs. Jolly and Mrs. Walton would have spoken to anyone about what they had discovered.

When I heard about the matter, I tabled a series of what I considered to be sensible questions to the Secretary of State. I asked what discussions he had had with the North West regional health authority on the appointment of investigators to report on the administration of the Guild trust during 1998 and 1999. I was informed that the Secretary of State would let me have a reply "as soon as possible."

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The Secretary of State's Department is on top of what is going on. It is clear that there was a high level of communication between the region and the centre, because the regional health authority suddenly found itself subcontracted as the Secretary of State's agent in the process of dismissal.

The assiduous Caroline Hastie, the health correspondent on the Lancashire Evening Post, wrote an article headlined, "Health Chiefs Ordered to Resign". In a sentence above the headline, the article stated that the Secretary of State had told

Caroline Hastie is a good reporter, not prone to exaggeration. She checks her facts and does the job properly; she saw the hand of the Secretary of State in the matter. However, when we checked behind the scenes, the Secretary of State had shuffled off the stage and the regional health authority was left holding the baby.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the authority's remarks about the matter being out of control. They show the state of desperation that the Secretary of State had reached. Like Pontius Pilate, he wanted to wash his hands of the affair and let the crowd decide the outcome. I do not know which part of the crowd decided the fate of the three non-executives, but that is the first smell that rises from this affair.

In the second of my questions, I asked the Secretary of State in what ways he had involved the chairman of the North West regional health authority in seeking the resignations of the non-executive directors. The next part of this sorry tale is really nasty. The Secretary of State did not have the openness to write letters to the non-executive directors, whom he must have trusted because he appointed them. By telephone, they told me that they received call after call, with mounting frequency, from the regional health authority, trying to persuade them to tender their resignations.

That is a nasty way to go about it. If those people had done something wrong, was there not a more open and straightforward way to tell them what the problem was? Apparently there was not, but I do not think that Mrs. Jolly and Mrs. Walton have made up the story for effect. I spoke to them, independently and without forewarning, on the same day. They could not have colluded, as there was no time between calls for them to decide to tell me the same story, but they both told me the same facts about the series of telephone calls.

In preparation for this debate, the Minister will have been briefed with a lot of background material. His civil servants will have gathered--from the regional health authority, the Guild trust, and elsewhere--a lot of material from which to synthesise the 15-minute reply that we shall enjoy at the end of the debate. The advice will have been given that some things should be said, and some other things should be left unsaid. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has called for a public inquiry, as I suspect that we shall not get to the bottom of the matter.

Mr. Denham indicated dissent.

Mr. Jack: The Minister displays a little tetchiness. He wants his chance, but I am sorry to have to tell him

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that those non-executive directors have looked to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley and me to place on the record matters about which the Minister may feel deeply uncomfortable, so I have no hesitation in pressing on with my analysis.

The telling question that the Secretary of State failed to answer was simple: would he list the grounds on which he dismissed the board of the Guild trust, Preston? I still do not know why he did that, and he should tell us, in public. I asked whether he would list occasions on which the non-executive directors of the trust sought advice from the North West regional health authority on the way in which the trust was being run, and what advice was given. We should be entitled to know, but all I received on both questions was a holding answer.

I asked whether the Secretary of State would publish correspondence between his Department, the health authority and the chief executive of the trust, during 1998 and 1999, on the chief executive's administration of the trust during that period. I believed that there must have been some comment from the centre on all that was going on. However, I received only a holding answer to that question. I asked questions about meetings and communications involving the Department and the chief executive. I received another holding answer. Finally, when I asked what reports the Department had received on the administration of the trust during the past two years and what conclusions had been drawn, I received another holding answer.

In this age of open government, Members of Parliament should be able to expect answers to sensible, searching questions. The holding answer came on 25 May. By now, I surely should have had a further response. If the Secretary of State can sack the chief executive during the time it has taken me to table questions, I am distressed by the lack of an answer to them. I have received an answer to a couple of other questions, which told me to look in the Library. There we have it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was right to read the statement published today by those who have been affected by this matter. I shall not detain the House by re-reading the statement, but it was clearly a plea from the heart from good people who feel deeply let down by what has happened. I am not surprised by that. My hon. Friend quoted extensively from the Galbraith-Campbell report, and I shall put on record exactly who the authors are. Mrs. Ann Campbell was formerly the chairman of the Royal Victoria Infirmary and Associated Hospitals NHS trust, Newcastle upon Tyne, a trust often cited and lauded by Ministers. Mr. Neil Campbell was chief executive of Dumfries and Galloway health board. Both know what they are doing when it comes to the health service.

My hon. Friend did not quote page 13 of the report. I do not criticise him for that; many parts of the report deserve detailed comments from the Minister. Page 13 notes:

It goes on:

    "Purchasers indicated that they are concerned about an atmosphere of secrecy, lack of openness and an unwillingness to accept the role of the Health Authorities in developing and planning".

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    The university representatives said that they had a

    "lack of a feeling of partnership with the Trust, which appeared to regard the University resource as a free good to be milked and used."

The union representatives

    "voiced lack of confidence in Mr Howell, evidenced by their wish some time ago to push forward a vote of no confidence in him."

The report goes on:

    "The panel is aware of steps which Mr Howell took in relation to North West Lancs Health Authority, where a high level ofpersonal animosity had developed between Mr Howell and Mr Edmundson"--

the authority's chief executive.

I could go on quoting the report, independent evidence that surely emphasises why the three non-executives took it upon themselves to investigate the sordid dealings in the trust. Their reward for being public minded, for doing their job, for blowing the whistle and for taking the lid off a miserable can of worms has been summary dismissal by, we think, the Secretary of State or one of his agents, without explanation, without any letter and without any kind of alternative employment in the health service.

What an advertisement for public service. The whole matter stinks. The only way in which we will get to the bottom of the matter is if the Minister will tonight endorse and agree to the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley that there should be a public inquiry.

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