Bottomley defends NHS chief in job row

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SIR DUNCAN NICHOL, the former NHS chief executive, has been allowed to join the board of the private health insurer Bupa because he no longer has 'inside information' on NHS policy, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday.

Sir Duncan takes up his post today, six months to the day since he left the National Health Service.

His appointment has been fiercely criticised by David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, who yesterday described Mrs Bottomley's claim as 'plainly absurd'.

She defended the appointment in a letter replying to Mr Blunkett's allegation that Sir Duncan's appointment involved a 'blatant breach' of civil service guidelines.

In her reply, Mrs Bottomley said that conditions had been imposed preventing Sir Duncan taking up the appointment for six months and stipulating that he must take 'no part in any dealings between Bupa and the National Health Executive for two years from his last day of service'.

The primary purpose of the civil service rules was 'to prevent 'inside information' being used in favour of any one employer', she said. 'It was judged in Sir Duncan's case that a six-month waiting period was enough to ensure that the value of any information he might have on emerging policy would disappear. That is fully consistent with the aim of the rules and past precedent.'

Mr Blunkett said: 'That claim is absurd. Somebody in Sir Duncan's position must have much information that is valuable to a company like Bupa and which will not be out of date after six months. If Mrs Bottomley's claim is true, then the NHS and the Department of Health must be in an even worse state of permanent revolution than we thought.'

Mrs Bottomley's contention was also denied by the imposition of a further 18- month ban on his taking part in dealings between Bupa and the NHS executive, Mr Blunkett said. He argued that the ban in itself was insufficient - because it did not prevent Sir Duncan from using his 'inside knowledge' with NHS trusts and health authorities.

In her letter, Mrs Bottomley insisted that civil service rules had been honoured and that it was 'in the public interest for people with experience of the public sector to move into business'.

'Equally, it is important that such moves should give no cause for any suspicion of impropriety. The rules and procedures exist to strike this balance.' There was nothing in the appointment to contradict her statements that privatisation of the NHS 'is not on our agenda'.