Andrew Lansley's promise to "listen" to health professionals over his plans to reform the NHS was last night branded a sham after it emerged that he had turned down an invitation to attend the nurses' annual conference.
Mr Lansley is expected to become the first Secretary of State or Prime Minister in eight years not to address the Royal College of Nurses Congress when it takes place next week in Liverpool.
Instead the Government plans to send the most junior minister of the Health Department – Anne Milton – to represent it.
Privately the RCN are angry that Mr Lansley could not find the time to attend congress – especially after both Mr Lansley and David Cameron addressed their conference last year when they were in the middle of an election campaign.
"You would have thought that if he wanted to listen to doctors and nurses then coming to the Congress would be something of a priority," said one RCN official. "I think you can draw your own conclusions."
Yesterday, when contacted by The Independent, the Department of Health appeared to backtrack and said it would investigate whether Mr Lansley would be able to attend the conference after all.
They added that Ms Milton was a former nurse and was considered the most appropriate minister to attend.
However, she would be the most junior minister to represent the Government at the RCN Congress in years. Last year all three party leaders addressed Congress, while in 2009 Mr Brown and Mr Cameron attended alongside Mr Lansley and Andy Burnham, then Labour Health Secretary.
If Mr Lansley does backtrack and attend, officials will be keen to avoid any chance of him being heckled by delegates who are already furious at cutbacks across the NHS. In 2006 the then Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, was heckled and booed when she warned nurses of much smaller job cut.
This year Congress comes against the backdrop of up to 50,000 job loses across the NHS – many of whom will be RCN members.
"Members will be hugely disappointed that Andrew Lansley is not going to appear," said Bernell Bussue, the RCN's London region director. "I know there is deep dissatisfaction about the plans as well as the cuts that are taking place.
"We are professionals and if he came he would be listened to with respect but I think they will draw their own conclusion from his decision not to attend."
A Department of Health spokesman said: "The Secretary of State has sent his apologies but at this point he won't be attending."
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