Bottomley bars NHS boss seeing Blunkett

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The Independent Online
THE Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, is at the centre of another row over politicisation of the health service after banning a meeting between her Labour opposite number and the NHS's new top official, writes Stephen Castle.

David Blunkett, shadow Secretary of State for Health, released a letter from Mrs Bottomley which ruled out a meeting with Alan Langlands, the new chief executive of the NHS management executive. The minister offered instead to answer 'any questions you may have if you put them in writing'. Mr Blunkett had previously had a meeting with Mr Langlands' predecessor, Sir Duncan Nichol. The dispute follows the Government's climbdown over an attempt to block a visit by the Labour leader, John Smith, to St Bartholomew's Hospital in central London. It also comes on the heels of claims that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Michael Portillo, was allowed to visit London's Royal Free Hospital while an Opposition front- bench health spokeswoman, Dawn Primarolo, was denied access to Kingston upon Thames Hospital.

Mr Blunkett, who is referring the matter to the head of the civil service, Sir Robin Butler, wrote to Mr Langlands on 25 January, seeking a meeting to discuss the executive and manpower. Mrs Bottomley replied on 30 March that these were matters 'which it would not be normal to discuss with a civil servant'.

Mr Blunkett yesterday argued that the chief executive's role is unlike that of a traditional civil servant. 'This is a bizarre example of the way in which secrecy has pervaded every aspect of the NHS.

'When I first became shadow Health Secretary I had a friendly and helpful meeting with Sir Duncan Nichol, who in the run-up to the general election established his post as being well outside the normal civil service conventions.'

The Department of Health said that Mr Blunkett's request had been handled within 'well- established' rules permitting 'incoming opposition spokesman to be briefed by senior officials at ministers' discretion on the work and administration of the department. This is the context in which Mr Blunkett spoke to Sir Duncan. Mr Blunkett wanted specific briefing on a subject on which policy was not yet fully formulated. In these circumstances ministers did not consider it appopriate.'