NHS gets down to party politics

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a week of difficult decisions for Britain's senior health managers. Thursday night posed a particularly tricky dilemma. The choice was between a six- course Edwardian banquet at the former home of Edward VII's mistress, Lillie Langtry, at pounds 33.49 a head (Edwardian dress optional) and a 'ski' evening with gluhwein, German beer, and 'Oompah' band: cost pounds 25.47, plus pounds 4 for use of the dry ski slope.

And if either of those seemed too frivolous, there was a formal dinner at a five star hotel. The pounds 46.41 price included a 'lively disco' afterwards.

Delegates at the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts (Nahat) annual conference in Bournemouth last week had two more days of social events to choose from. Most health organisations pay for their managers' 'formal' entertainment at such events, although they usually draw the line at stumping up for partners.

Some see this as an insensitive waste of taxpayers' money when hospitals and health authorities are having to close wards, sack staff and reduce services. Most of the 1,200 chief executives, chairmen and non-executive members of authorities at the three-day conference (cost pounds 235 plus travel, accommodation and expenses) disagree. They believe it is a vital chance to network, make contacts and swap ideas.

One of the first social engagements was on Wednesday night at the Royal Bath Hotel on Bournemouth sea-front. For pounds 38.18, about 300 delegates and partners enjoyed American food and a six- piece New Orleans jazz band. The Garden Restaurant was adorned with red, white, and blue balloons, as executives danced the evening away under the chandeliers.

Nahat's organisers said that, regrettably, none of the participants were willing to discuss the public benefit of such events. They were even less willing to be photographed. An Independent on Sunday photographer was forced to leave after one of the hotel managers grabbed his camera and threatened him with the police.

Delegates in the neighbouring cocktail lounge were more talkative. Mrs C Vaughan-Griffiths, chairwoman of Birmingham Family Health Services Authority, said: 'The networking is incredibly important. It is of as much value as the formal set pieces, perhaps more.'

Gerard Coghlan, chairman of West Birmingham Health Authority, agreed: 'It's a way to relax and a way to meet other people and have a chat with other authorities.'

Not everyone in the hotel was as happy. Dr David Pelta, a GP fundholder in Southend, and Dr Rod Smith, a GP fundholder in Reading, both guest speakers, were consoling themselves with pints of beer. Dr Pelta said: 'They've toned down the jamboree from last year. These people make a lot of fine talk about public funds, but how do they justify the jamboree that goes with it? This is a five-star hotel.'

Dr Smith was also unhappy. 'We were very disappointed not to be invited to the jazz evening because one of the main points is to meet people.'

Other speakers grumbled about the 'second-class accommodation'. 'My room's poky and has an awful view,' moaned one.

At the Edwardian banquet, Warwickshire Health Authority was picking up the bill as Geoffrey Jackson, his wife Rita, Peter Stansbie, the chief executive and his wife, Janet, enjoyed a choice of roast topside of scotch beef with cracked black pepper crust, poached salmon with saffron and spring onion sauce, and Dorset pork with cider.

Richard Humphries, secretary to the authority, said: 'The less formal occasions provide an important opportunity to establish networks and discuss policy issues away from the conference setting.'

At the beginning of the month, it was announced that Warwickshire HA would be getting pounds 1m income less for the next eight years. It will probably have to cut 250 jobs and 120 hospital beds. Then, MrJackson said: 'We are always going to be in a situation where there is not enough money to do the things we want to.'

Lynda Shelton, chairwoman of the Rotherham Priority Health Services Trust, believes that the public's money was well spent in sending eight delegates from various health organisations to the Lillie Langtry experience. 'It is a rare opportunity for eight key players in Rotherham to meet and address important health issues,' she said, but added: 'We will obviously be reviewing our policy on these events next year.'

Ian Carter, director of contracts at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear NHS Trust, whose hospital is fighting for survival after the Tomlinson report into London's health services recommended that it be merged with other hospitals, believes the conference is a bargain. 'The networking is all important - only two or three of the conference speakers are any good. The conference costs are cheap, the whole three days is a bargain really, when you consider what you can gain from it.' The trust paid his and two other delegates fees for formal social events.

Others are not so sure of the value of it all. Joe Dorado, chief executive of Southend Community Care Services NHS Trust, in Rochford, Essex, said: 'I'm a fairly social person, but if I'm spending taxpayers' money I'm very careful what I do. I appreciate the social events but in a frugal way, I'm not here to enjoy myself.'

Another delegate, who would not be named, said: 'The importance of networking is a cliche presented by professional conference-goers.'

Some delegates believe every minute of the conference is a business opportunity. Ernie Walker, chief executive of the Mayday Healthcare NHS Trust, in Croydon, south London, said: 'Being nice is very hard work. You can never let your guard down; you are always aware that you are representing your organisation. That means you have to be impeccably behaved. I've had to get up at 6am for a meeting in Southampton to be back at Bournemouth for midday. I haven't stopped. We are all workaholics here.'

(Photograph omitted)