One NHS area paid a total of pounds 120,000 to a company to recruit four executives. Oxford Regional Health Authority forked out pounds 30,000 to a firm called Korn Ferry to find its new pounds 80,000-a-year chief executive; Oxford District Health Authority spent pounds 60,000 to get its new chief executive and director of finance; and Oxford Family Health Services Authority paid pounds 30,000 for a replacement chief executive.
A senior manager working for the district health authority said: 'It's an absolute disgrace and there is a lot of embarrassment at the amount that has been spent. People are appalled that such vast sums can be wasted when there is so much pressure on services to the patient. How can anyone justify spending that sort of money?
'The worst thing about this particular case is that, for one of the posts, the company did little more than place an advert in newspapers and draw up a short list. One of the other successful candidates actually canvassed to try to get the job, so they hardly had to seek her out.'
The FHSA also paid pounds 50,000 over a five-month period to the Institute of Health Service Management for the services of a consultant who worked as stand-in chief executive two days a week. The FHSA chairman, Doreen Levy, refused to comment but its finance director, Nick Dollard, confirmed that Korn Ferry had been used.
A spokesman for Dr Peter Iredale, chairman of the district health authority, said he had no comment to make. The regional health authority said that using a head-hunting company ensured that the right candidate was found to run an RHA with a pounds 1bn- a-year budget, but its spokesman refused to confirm the cost of hiring Korn Ferry.
He added: 'We are talking about a key post and we have to be very careful that the right candidate is selected.'
The RHA has hired Korn Ferry to find a new chief executive and senior managers for Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital, which is shortly to be run by a trust, and for the Wexham Park Hospital in Slough.
David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said: 'Head- hunting is becoming an all-too- common alternative to normal recruitment procedures. Where this involves spending more than it costs to employ two nurses for a year, there is surely something seriously wrong with the NHS.
'We have tried to find out how much is spent in this area but the Government say they don't have the figures. But across the country it must be costing the NHS millions of pounds.'
Korn Ferry refused to confirm how much it had been paid by the health authorities. Anne Lawrence, its research director, said: 'We have been working in the NHS and public sector in Britain for a very long time.
'We were one of the first firms to develop head-hunting in this country and we work extensively for health authorities and hospitals.
'We pride ourselves in being in the know about who is available and suitable for our clients. Many of the people we choose for health authorities do not respond to adverts and probably have no plans to change job, so they wouldn't be studying the job adverts.
'We are a very large company with offices all over Europe, Britain, America and Latin America.'