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Senior managers have accused the NHS Executive of 'cronyism' for failing to advertise a chief executive post and 'parachuting in' its own candidate.

The North West regional office and Wigan and Bolton health authority decided not to advertise the HA vacancy. Instead Tom Mann, regional director of operations and primary care, will be seconded as chief executive for 'up to three years'.

Stockport HA chief executive Peter Milnes said the regional office had not informed other authorities of the move and told HSJ: 'I am not sure how far the region could say the arrangements would not disadvantage other applicants.'

Other managers in the area were highly critical of the move, which they said raised questions about fairness. But most asked not to be named for fear of damaging future job prospects. One said: 'Cronyism is alive and well in the North West office.

'The decision shows a blatant disregard for the principles of openness and equality of opportunity that this government is said to demand.'

The row erupted in the same week as NHS human resources director Hugh Taylor admitted secondment could be used 'as a device to get round effective and proper open selection processes'.

Speaking to a trainee managers' conference in Birmingham, Mr Taylor said the NHS Executive was keen to 'encourage' secondments, but added that they 'should not be misused just as a way round selection'.

Outgoing Wigan and Bolton chief executive Mike Ruane, who retires in September, said: 'There is a view that there are insufficient candidates of senior calibre to fill all the trust and HA posts at the moment.'

He said candidates would be 'reluctant' to come forward, because HAs in the Greater Manchester area were likely to be merged over the next few years as primary care groups took over commissioning.

But Salford and Trafford HA chair Dr Ian Greatorex said: 'I don't see that we are going to move into a Greater Manchester HA in the near future. You only know if you are going to attract the right candidates if you advertise the post in the first place. It is normally the case that HA chief executive posts are open to national competition.'

Other chief executives suggested the NHS Executive was trying to save on possible redundancy costs from a merger of the local HAs.

Managers in the region are taking advice on correct procedures before considering further action, such as going to an industrial tribunal. It would be 'difficult' to take such a course because it would damage career prospects, one said.