Fresh cronyism in NHS charges Blairites on NHS trusts double

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THE GOVERNMENT is facing fresh accusations of "cronyism" after figures showed that the number of Labour supporters on NHS trusts has nearly doubled in the past year.

Dame Rennie Fitchie, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, announced yesterday that she will investigate the figures as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into allegations of political bias in the allocation of NHS posts.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "It is completely unacceptable that a government, whatever its political colour, thinks that it can appoint its own mates to important public-service jobs. This is a clear example of jobs for the girls and boys at a time when we need people who are independent and will stand up to the Government to make sure it keeps its promises on things like waiting lists."

Mr Hughes called on the Government to take the appointments process out of the hands of ministers and pass them to an all-party Select Committee, as in the United States.

The decision by Dame Rennie follows the publication of the Department of Health's latest annual report on appointments to trust boards across England. The figures show that the number of Labour supporters with non- executive directorships soared from 226 last year to 416 this year.

By contrast, the number of Tory appointments has risen only slightly from 91 to 111. More than 20 per cent of all top trust posts are occupied by Labour activists, compared with 5 per cent by Tories and 2.4 per cent by Liberal Democrats.

The position is similar among health authorities, with Labour having four times as many non-executive directors as the Conservatives. Of those who declare political activism, 126 directors are Labour, 30 are Tory and 20 Liberal Democrats. Among those who chair the health authorities, 25 are Labour, with 12 Tories and seven Liberals. Some of the posts are eligible for salaries of up to pounds 19,000, and many are filled by Labour councillors.

The statistics come after mounting criticism that the Government is abusing the appointments system. Labour also faces allegations of hypocrisy because, during its time in opposition, it accused the Tories of "packing" NHS trusts and health authorities with their own supporters. Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, has repeatedly dismissed suggestions of bias, but Dame Rennie's office said yesterday that the inquiry will "pay particular attention to the attraction and selection of politically active and politically nominated candidates".

It will examine records of appointments at the NHS Executive and regional offices, examine the current round of appointments, and take as examples the North West and Northern and Yorkshire health regions.

The controversy was fuelled last month by the last-minuteappointment of a member of Tony Blair's local Labour club to chair South Durham NHS Trust.