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Police look into lost NHS millions

WESSEX Regional Health Authority is going to investigate the role of its chairman in the privatisation of computer services which wasted millions of pounds of public funds. Hampshire police confirmed last night that it is looking into the circumstances surrounding the contract.

An investigation by the Independent and Computer Weekly, revealed yesterday that Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, had failed to act on a confidential district auditor report compiled last year that exposed serious mismanagement in the health authority.

The report, which Wessex and the Department of Health have tried to prevent becoming public, criticises Sir Robin Buchanan, the authority chairman, for intervening in contracts committing Wessex to paying for services it did not need, and sometimes did not get.

In 1991, Sir Robin was appointed by the Government to chair the NHS Supplies Authority, one of the most senior health service posts and a key part of government strategy for the NHS. In total, it is estimated Wessex lost as much as pounds 63m in its pursuit of an integrated regional computer system. Some of the money was lost before Sir Robin became chairman in 1988.

The Department of Health acknowledged possession of the secret report. A spokesman admitted: 'Sir Robin was criticised for two matters . . . but we are not planning any further action.'

David Blunkett, shadow Secretary of State for Health, called for the 'immediate publication' of the report. He asked for proper scrutiny of Sir Robin's role and said of the department's refusal to act: 'A total lack of openness and a fear of employees to speak out is creating a dangerous atmosphere of cover-up and the dismissal of genuine worries about the waste of money, nepotism and misuse of resources. This can only damage patient care.'

John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, yesterday tabled a series of parliamentary questions, asking Mrs Bottomley when she received the report and what action she took.

In addition to the disclosures in the secret report, the Independent's investigation discovered that Sir Robin initiated a disturbing conflict of interest with a computer supplier and also approached another for a financial loan to help to keep the region's computer programme going. The Treasury refused to authorise it.

Yesterday Wessex said it would be investigating, adding: 'We were not aware of that and will be asking Sir Robin about that.'

Hampshire police fraud squad said: 'We have been made aware of certain matters and these are now being investigated.'

Leading article, page 18