Published: 07/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5949 Page 6

Politicians have been banned from campaigning at a London hospital trust in the run-up to the general election.

A memo sent out to relevant prospective parliamentary candidates by Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals trust says they will not be permitted to campaign on site before 5 May.

'The first duty of the trust is the care and well-being of patients, visitors and staff. Any activity that has the potential to disrupt the ability of the trust to fulfil its duty will be avoided, ' the memo reads.

'Visits to the trust by any candidates, politicians or political parties as part of the general election campaign will not be permitted.' The trust has been zero-starred in three out of four years and its performance will be a major topic of debate for candidates in the numerous marginal constituencies in and around Barnet and Enfield.

'If they think this is going to be a way to deflect the criticism of political parties from them they have got another thing coming, ' said Liberal Democrat candidate for Chipping Barnet Sean Hooker.

'If they are worried about a media circus disrupting them then I support the decision. However we are in a democratic process and the NHS has to be accountable as much as anybody else. I think they are a little bit worried that certain issues will be highlighted and that media stunts could be undertaken.'

The Conservative candidate for the seat, Theresa Villiers, said she did not see the ban as problematic, despite there being 'a lot of things I would like to change about Barnet Hospital'.

Ms Villiers said: 'Health - and Barnet Hospital - is going to be a big issue locally for me as it is for candidates across the country. The fact that they do not want campaigning events across their premises will not stop it being an issue.

'A fairly fundamental part of the Conservatives' plans for the health service is to say that professionals are the best people to take key decisions rather than politicians. I am quite happy to give them the freedom to decide what works best.' Labour's candidate for Chipping Barnet, Pauline Coakley-Webb, said she did not have a problem with the decision.

'You do not have to be on hospital grounds to debate the issues. You do not need to be in a school to debate education or a police station to debate crime, ' she commented.

'All they are saying is it is not apt to bring politics onto the wards. If you are feeling really ill the last thing you want is a politician coming to play politics at the bedside.' The trust has also warned staff they must not take part in political activity or wear political paraphernalia during work time. They are also prohibited from arranging postal or proxy votes for patients.