Charities to demand return of hospital cash: Legal action threatened over pounds 140m building

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The Independent Online
HEALTH MINISTERS are to face demands for the return of tens of millions of pounds of charitable and trust fund money - and a possible Public Accounts Committee inquiry - if, as expected next week, they opt to turn Britain's most expensive and sophisticated hospital wing into a day surgery centre and medical school.

Consultants at both Guy's and St Thomas's hospitals in London believe ministers have decided to back a 'secret' merger option that will leave St Thomas's the victor in the London hospital closure battle.

Instead of splitting services between the two, St Thomas's would become the main site. The pounds 140m Philip Harris House, a five-storey, state-of-the-art building at Guy's would be used not as Britain's most advanced hospital building, but for day surgery and teaching.

The wing - due to open in September - would become an astronomically expensive white elephant. Trust funds and medical charities who have put up almost pounds 50m of the cost are variously threatening legal action, demanding their money back or seeking replacement facilities at government expense if the building is not used as intended.

With almost pounds 100m of public money already tied up in the building, Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey, has referred the issue to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, saying he fears there is 'a scandalous waste of public money' in the making.

Those funding the wing include Sir Philip Harris, the former carpet magnate and Guy's chairman, who has promised pounds 6m; Guy's special trustees, who promised pounds 24m; and medical charities who have promised some pounds 13m.

However, some pounds 30m still has to be found, according to hospital sources, and the uncertainty over the wing's future has led charities, the special trustees and, it is understood, Sir Philip himself, to all halt payments towards the sums they have promised. As a result, construction companies are owed millions for work done, with Kent Corporation, an Irish-based engineering firm owed pounds 4m, going into receivership earlier this month.

Guy's special trustees, who are understood to have paid over only about pounds 14m of the pounds 24m they promised, have halted all payments, and a spokesman said that if the wing was not used for its designed purpose 'we will seek a legal opinion on whether we can claim back what we have already paid over'.

The Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which has provided pounds 1.7m capital, said it would want the same facilities provided free at St Thomas's or its money back: 'This is charitable money and we would expect someone, not us or the public who raised it, to make up for the loss if Philip Harris House is not used as intended.'

The Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, which has promised pounds 600,000, expected the same. Hospital sources say pounds 18m is now being withheld.

Dr Bob Knight, chairman of the medical and dental staff at Guy's, said yesterday that Guy's main hope was 'that politicians can change their minds' and that the full implications of what was being planned would be realised. There were some signs yesterday that ministers may consult further before a final decision to ditch Guy's as the flagship NHS Trust is made.