Wessex 'cover-up' claim over ministers

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The Independent Online
TWO former ministers have been accused of being implicated in a 'cover-up' over failed computer projects which resulted in losses totalling pounds 63m for Wessex Regional Health Authority. A third minister was identified as being involved in one contract.

John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, told the House of Commons during an adjournment debate on Monday night that personal, political and corporate interests converged in exploiting the authority and later concealing the truth. Those involved 'read like a roll-call of the British Establishment', he said. Taking advantage of parliamentary privilege, he discussed sensitive findings of two district auditor's reports into the losses. The reports' existence was disclosed during an investigation by the Independent and Computer Weekly.

He said that in 1986 Tony Newton, then health minister, had answered a parliamentary question which asked for details of all consultants to the authority. He had omitted to mention the role played by Arthur Andersen & Co, who went on to win a contract. 'At the time the question was answered, Edwina Currie was junior health minister,' Mr Denham said. 'Her husband and brother- in-law worked for Andersen's' He also questioned the role of Lord Jenkin, a former secretary of state, in lobbying for that contract when he 'clearly had an unusual knowledge of rival bids'.

Tom Sackville, the junior health minister, accused Mr Denham of exploiting privilege to cast such aspersions. Yesterday, Mrs Currie denied that her relatives' business activities had had any bearing on her conduct in office.

Mr Denham accused Wessex of trying to divert attention from the role played by its chairman, Sir Robin Buchanan, who is also chairman of the NHS supplies authority, a key agency in health service reforms. He helped negotiate one contract and played an important role in ensuring the survival of the computer scheme after he took office in 1988.

Mr Denham said that a special session of the Public Accounts Committee to consider the Wessex affair, scheduled for next month, might never have been called had it not been for 'inquiries by the Independent, Computer Weekly and myself'.