Senior NHS officer may have misled MPs over contracts: Commons committee 'not given full information'

ONE OF the most senior officers in the National Health Service may have misled MPs over the extent of his knowledge of contracts on which millions of pounds were wasted.

Documents in the possession of the Independent suggest that Sir Robin Buchanan, chairman of Wessex Regional Health authority and also chairman of the NHS Supplies Authority, did not provide full information to a special session of the all- party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last month. The committee heard evidence from Sir Robin and other officials regarding losses of up to pounds 63m incurred during the mismanaged computerisation of Wessex Health Authority.

The documents have been passed to Robert Sheldon, the chairman of the committee. He said: 'I will study the evidence and may wish to ask some further questions of Sir Robin.'

The documents show that Sir Robin - who was appointed to head the NHS Supplies Authority by William Waldegrave when he was health secretary in 1991 - was involved in the negotiation of a contract in 1988 with a computer company. He told MPs, however, that he was not involved in this contract. Sir Robin became chairman shortly before the contract was agreed.

A memorandum dated 12 September 1988 shows that Sir Robin was party to finalising the terms of the agreement. He said yesterday: 'Although I did receive some information about (the) contract and was present at a meeting when it was discussed; I was not in at the beginning of negotiations . . . and I was never in a position to be fully aware of all the issues raised by the contract.'

A joint investigation by the Indpendent and Computer Weekly disclosed the existence of two secret district auditor reports which castigated Wessex for its management and singled out this contract for criticism. The contract guaranteed the contractor a profit 15 per cent above its costs, regardless of performance. It is not clear how much was wasted on this contract which marked the second stage of a computer project designed to link all information systems across the region. But the project, which was abandoned in 1990, lost as much as pounds 63m. Sir Robin does not deny that he was involved in the renegotiation of the 1988 contract in 1990.

Sir Robin also told the PAC that he did not negotiate with computer consultants CSL, parent of the contractor. But on 20 October 1989, he wrote a letter to Philip Sellers, chairman of CSL. The letter sets out terms for the negotiation of aspects of the contract agreed in 1988. CSL was a shareholder in Wessex Integrated Systems (WIS), the company which won that contract; and Mr Sellers was also its chairman.

Sir Robin said yesterday that he was negotiating with Mr Sellers as chairman of WIS, not of CSL. He said he would be 'horrified' if PAC members felt he had misled them.