'Shroud of secrecy' attacked

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LABOUR MPs last night protested at the 'total shroud of secrecy' cast over scandals in the West Midlands Regional Health Authority.

The Department of Health declined to say yesterday how much Sir James Ackers received as a pay-off after resigning two years early as chairman of the health authority, or explain why he had received it. In a Commons adjournment debate, Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield, said pay-offs for former executives of the RHA - notably Sir James - showed the Government's 'incredible double standards'. If a local authority had been involved ministers would have been screaming from the roof tops.

Tom Sackville, Under-Secretary of State for Health, said the 'supposed problems or scandals' had been properly investigated and 'any actions that are due will be taken'. Terry Davis, MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, shouted at the minister that his reply was 'disgraceful'.

Several MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee have privately expressed surprise at the news of a severance payment for Sir James, who resigned from the pounds 20,925 a year part-time post in January after criticism of his authority for losing an estimated pounds 4m on a consultancy contract.

Sir James, 57, has declined to speak to the Independent since his resignation, but he told the Public Accounts Committee this week that he had received the payment.

A Department of Health spokesman said yesterday that Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, nominates health authority chairmen and women, and had the power to make discretionary payments to them when they left before the expiry of a contract. He said: 'When somebody ceases to be chairman and it appears there are special circumstances which make it right for him to receive compensation, then the Secretary of State can make a payment to the chairman.'

Last July, a report by the National Audit Office, the accountancy watchdog on public spending, found that a management consultancy exercise intended to save the authority pounds 1m had cost four times that amount. Sir James denied responsibility, blamed management officials for the problems, and said he was resigning to let the authority make a new start. He was replaced by Sir Donald Wilson. Asked whether the severance payment had been agreed before Sir James resigned, the health department spokesman said the resignation had come first.