Budget cut `scuppers' health quango

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BY LIZ HUNT Medical Correspondent

The Government yesterday abolished - in all but name - one of the most controversial quangos of the Eighties, the Health Education Authority, slashing its annual budget from £36m to an estimated £250,000.

The HEA angered ministers with explicit sex and Aids/HIV education campaigns, and wascriticised for its refusal to ban tobacco advertising. It will have to compete with other agencies for specific government contracts from April 1996. Observers say that it will lose its independent voice as a result.

The British Medical Association immediately condemned the decision, saying that health education could not be left to the vagaries of the market, and that it begged serious questions about the Government's commitment to its Health of the Nation White Paper.

Dr Mac Armstrong, BMA secretary, said last night: "I cannot understand the rationale behind a decision which leaves England alone among the four countries in the UK with a centrally-funded health education agency ... It seems that being critical of the Government ... has left the HEA with little or no support in government."

Many of the HEA's 200 staff are likely to be made redundant as a result of the "radically-changed funding mechanism", announced by Gerald Malone, Minister for Health, yesterday. Staff costs accounted for £5.5m in 1993-94.

Mr Malone said that he was "delighted" to end the uncertainty surrounding the HEA's future. It would retain its special health authority status within the NHS and there was also a continuing role for "a national health education body which can advise ministers and act as a centre of expertise".

He dismissed suggestions that the HEA budget was being cut, claiming that the annual sums of £30m plus were always "discretionary". Commenting on the new funding arrangements, Mr Malone said: "I expect the authority not just to be sitting there waiting mutely for government contracts to drop out of the sky."

Mr Malone declined to comment on the amount of core funding that the HEA would receive but sources suggested a figure of £250,000.

Tony Close, chairman of the HEA, said he was pleased to be leading the authority into a new phase of growth. "Providing we continue to deliver first-class, cost-effective programmes and products which meet the health needs of the people of England, I have every confidence that the Government will continue to buy our work."

In 1995-96, the authority would continue to be funded by central Government to the tune of £31m, he added.

Mr Close said that HEA would be free to undertake work for other organisations on a contract basis from 1996. It had been widely predicted that the HEA would be dismantled after its troubled recent relationship with health ministers.