Major accused of climb-down on press ban

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Indy Politics
JOHN MAJOR was last night accused by Labour of an embarrassing climb-down over an attempt to ban press coverage of a visit by John Smith to Bart's Hospital.

Mr Smith protested to Mr Major about a 'gross abuse of government power' after hospital officials told the Labour leader's office the press could not cover Mr Smith's visit to St Bartholomew's threatened accident and emergency unit because it would be in breach of local election rules.

'Can I ask you to explain why you yourself were able to make a visit to Basildon Hospital Maternity Unit on 5 April in a blaze of publicity? What is the Government afraid of?' Mr Smith wrote.

The visit was intended to highlight the Labour debate in the Commons today on the closure of London teaching hospitals. Jerry Green, the chief executive of St Bartholomew's Hospital, told Mr Smith's office last night there had been 'a change of mind'.

Mr Major said in his reply the Representation of the People Act did not apply to his Basildon visit. But he said the ban on coverage of Mr Smith's visit to Bart's was based on 'over- scrupulous reading' by the Department of Health of guidance by Sir Robin Butler, head of the home civil service.

Mr Smith said: 'This is another embarrassing own goal. The Prime Minister has been forced to order the Department of Health and the Hospital Trust to back down.'

Before the move, Dawn Primarolo, the shadow health minister, was prevented from visiting another London hospital because of the Act governing the conduct of the elections on 5 May.

The battle over the NHS in the local elections will be intensified today by Brian Mawhinney, the Minister of State for Health, with plans to expand substantially the number of family doctors who control their own budgets to buy treatment for their patients.

Dr Mawhinney, who will host a national conference of fundholding GPs in London, is ready to change the law to allow more GPs to qualify.

A health Bill, to be introduced in November, is likely to be used to increase the amount of elective surgery which fundholders can take over from hospitals.

The conference is being used by ministers to produce more ideas for expanding the system of fundholders. They believe the expansion of fundholding will consolidate the system. Dr Mawhinney regards it as a 'lever' for change and improving services. But Labour has alleged it is leading to a two-tier system.

David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman on health, who has threatened to end fund holding, said a hospital in Enfield, north London, was giving preferential treatment to patients of fundholding GPs at a rheumatology clinic until this week when he objected. It wrote to fundholders: 'The clinic is . . . available to GP fundholders only and has been set up at the hospital in order that it can be available to all GP fundholders.'

Mr Blunkett will publish a report today alleging huge gaps in death rates between different areas of Britain, with the Northern Region having 14 per cent more 'avoidable deaths' than expected.