... as health official defects after takeover

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Westminster Correspondent

A senior health service official who presided over a regional health authority's sell-off programme is leaving to join the company which has bought its multi-million pound computer operation. The appointment has prompted further Opposition charges of sleaze and of the Government turning a blind eye to potential conflicts of interest among its employees.

Gerald Johnson, director of change management at South and West Regional Health Authority, is joining Electronic Data Systems, the US-owned information technology giant once owned by the former presidential contender, Ross Perot. EDS has been making huge strides in Britain in recent years, picking up government privatisation contracts and public sector service contracts.

Last Friday, it purchased Swift, the South and West RHA's data-processing centre. Swift's 250 staff, based at the computer centre in Bristol, had their jobs transferred to EDS.

The sale went ahead despite a staff poll which voted nine to one against privatisation and EDS. Staff anger has been further aroused by Mr Johnson's resignation. He leaves at the end of this month and, it is understood, will work on EDS's controversial contract to process Inland Revenue computer records. Opposition parties have voiced concern at EDS handling sensitive tax files.

Unison, the union which represents many Swift staff, has protested to the authority about Mr Johnson's departure. Chris Howe, Unison's regional health service organiser, told the trade magazine Computer Weekly that Mr Johnson's move was a "bit odd", adding: "It's very difficult not to take a cynical view."

A spokesman for South and West said Mr Johnson was in charge of the authority's privatisation programme. "Swift was one of those things being divested," he acknowledged.

The spokesman claimed Mr Johnson took no part in detailed negotiations between the authority and his new employer. "He had an overview, but had no direct involvement." EDS said Mr Johnson will not handle any health service business.

Alan Milburn, Labour MP for Darlington and a member of the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the explanation from the authority was not good enough.

He described Mr Johnson's resignation as "a kick in the teeth for staff who opposed the sale. They now find that one of those involved in its execution landed a plum job with the people who took them over." Mr Milburn said it was "time to stop this privatisation gravy train" and was "sufficiently concerned" to ask the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, to investigate.