The new choice as deputy NHS chief executive has been welcomed by managers and unions.Ann McGauran finds out why

'Straight, tough and committed.' That is Unison's assessment of Hugh Taylor, currently NHS human resources director and soon to be director of external and corporate affairs - and de facto deputy to health service chief executive Nigel Crisp.

Once upon a time there were some things in life you could depend on - but the golden days for journalists of union chiefs and NHS personnel bosses exchanging insults and steeped in vendettas are gone for ever, it seems.

Mr Taylor, aged 50, is a 'top man', and the NHS is 'lucky to have him', according to head of health at Unison, Bob Abberley.

'His people skills are brilliant and he's a class act, ' he adds. 'He has all the right qualities for being at the other side of the table, and we have a huge respect for the bloke.When things are tough and a bit tense, he will get people working together.'

He has 'established human resources as synonymous with the modernisation agenda', according to policy director for human resources at the NHS Confederation Andrew Foster.

Certainly, with the publication of the NHS plan and the new human resources framework last autumn, with the accompanying Improving Working Lives standard, NHS workforce issues, including recruitment and retention, have never had such a high profile. When Alan Milburn became health secretary, he immediately said there had to be a strong focus on staff, Mr Foster points out. 'Then Hugh Taylor came in and he was clearly a big hitter and he in turn has been able to attract a lot of good people.'

Huntingdonshire primary care group chief executive Karen Bell says his 'strategic' approach to what had previously been a 'fairly piecemeal' function has brought cohesion and a 'vision for the future'. She believes that what needs to be strengthened far more is the performance management by regional offices of the targets he has set in place.

But are not there any rows, tantrums or Machiavellian tactics? What about his previous job as director of personnel at the prison service?

When it first heard of his appointment to the NHS, Unison rushed to get an assessment from its prison officer brethren. Not always noted for their ability to see the best in everyone, they gave him a glowing report.

Paul Marks, national secretary for health at Unison, praises Mr Taylor's ability to 'look at a very complex situation and find an innovative way of approaching it'.

He cites the 1999 pay dispute, when the review body awarded 4.7 per cent and non-review body staff were offered 3 per cent.

'In the end we negotiated a three-year deal when the alternative was industrial action. It was the first time there was a longterm deal in a significant part of the public sector.'

In Agenda for Change discussions, he 'made sure issues get talked about' without derailing the process. His style is certainly understated - but 'very valuable' and without question the right one, Mr Marks believes.

Mr Taylor describes his new role to HSJ as 'watching Nigel's back and making sure We are not missing out on anything'. There is much to be done in order to modernise the DoH and the Executive - to make it 'fit for purpose' - since Nigel Crisp took over the helm of both bodies.

Mr Taylor says there is also a large 'people agenda'.He will be responsible for staff training and development - including making sure staff recruited into the department get frontline experience in the NHS and social services.

In the past there was 'too much emphasis on people with a clinical and management background coming into the department and getting marooned'. With the increasing emphasis on joined-up government, he is also charged with 'managing our interface' with other government departments as well as with outside stakeholders.

He seems to rub along well with Mr Crisp. They have plenty in common, after all. Both are Cambridge graduates of about the same age, quietly spoken and personable.He will stay in his current post as personnel director until a replacement is found for what he describes as the 'one of the key jobs for the next two to three years'.

What sort of person would be suitable? 'You have always got to be open to fresh blood, but someone with no experience of the NHS and government would have to be very impressive to do the job, ' he says.

One HSJ source claims the NHS is struggling to find a successor - at a key time for HR. Agenda for Change discussions with the unions on a new pay system are at a crucial stage and negotiations with the British Medical Association are at a tricky stage.

The choice will be a crucial one.

He adds: 'Many of the trust HR directors have got a reputation as hard-nosed bastards and to appoint them would turn the clock back.'

A big-hitter's CV: Hugh Taylor Latest job: director of external and corporate affairs at the DoH and a deputy to NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp.

From January 1998: director of HR at the NHS Executive.Lead official on the team contributing to the workforce element of the NHS plan.Personally led negotiation of new contract for junior doctors.

August 1996-December 1997: director of administration and services for the prison service.Delivered two private finance initiative prisons on schedule and launched further tenders.

August 1993-August 1996: director of civil service employer group at the Cabinet Office, where he led the production of three white papers on the civil service.

1972-1993: various posts within the Cabinet Office and Home Office.

Married with two daughters, he lives in Dulwich, south London.