NHS to sue official over `irregular' deal

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A regional health authority is considering legal action against a top NHS executive seeking the return of an irregular payment of thousands of pounds made on his behalf when he was its general manager.

The relocation payment to Keith McLean, currently the chief executive of the Trent region, was one of 17 totalling pounds 450,000 that were declared outside the health authority's powers by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the public spending watchdog. Last year he qualified the NHS accounts over the money, saying he took "a serious view" of the issue.

His decision led Alan Langlands, the NHS chief executive, to order an inquiry and seek recovery of the payments, telling the Northern and Yorkshire region to take disciplinary action if appropriate.

To date, one manager, David Martin, the former Yorkshire region's assistant general manager, has been reprimanded for not taking independent legal advice. He has paid back around pounds 20,000 advanced on his behalf to help buy out the negative equity on his home when he moved to the region.

But three other managers, including Mr McLean, and 13 doctors have so far failed to return similar payments which Sir John dubbed "irregular" and which Mr McLean said in his case involved around pounds 15,000.

The Northern and Yorkshire region of the NHS - the successor body to the old Yorkshire region whose accounts Sir John qualified - said at the weekend that it was still pursuing recovery of the sums, and was now considering legal action in the outstanding cases.

Mr McLean said he would "see them in court", stating he did not plan to return a payment which he had received in good faith. The British Medical Association said the consultants involved were not returning their payments on similar grounds.

The collapse in the housing market left the NHS paying interest on bridging loans on houses whose values were falling, Mr McLean said. The health authority decided to resolve that by one-off payments to help buy out the negative equity in the homes. In his case, he said, he received about pounds 15,000 but still took a pounds 30,000 loss as part of the deal. It was those payments that Sir John ruled ultra vires.

The decision was approved during a section of a regional health authority meeting from which he excluded himself, Mr Mclean said. He added that he had not been disciplined over the payment and would not be, the Department of Health confirming that the region had decided disciplinary action against him would be "inappropriate".

Mr Mclean is leaving his post at the end of the month when Trent, along with the other regions, becomes an office of the NHS Executive. He is to become a research fellow in health care management at Sheffield University, but, he said, "I have not been sacked."

The NHS inquiry into the former Yorkshire region has been passed to the National Audit Office.