POLITICS

Published: 27/03/2003, Volume II3, No. 5848 Page 19

I wasn't sure whether to track down Philip Hunt, who resigned from government over the war with Iraq. The Labour life peer went to earth after his starburst of resignation fame on Radio 4's To d a y programme.

But, as my mind rots gently, I am a becoming a great believer in acting upon omen and coincidence. Driving through the South Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath in bright sunshine on Saturday I said to Mrs White: 'Why does Kings Heath ring a bell?'

Ah yes, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. So I rang him at home (in Kings Heath) on Sunday night. No, he didn't want to say any more, but he did. First Iraq: the government's policy had been troubling him for months and he felt uneasy like John Denham, his ex-colleague at health, and indeed like his own teenage son, Jacob, who has been a demo leader.

'When it came to the crunch I came to the view it would be hypocritical to stay.'

He woke on the day the die was cast and decided to go. Health secretary Alan Milburn was surprised but kind. 'Clearly It is impossible to believe the government is 100 per cent right on everything, I accept corporate responsibility. But when it comes to something as big as this the rule can't apply. I am absolutely relieved I did it.'

As HSJ noted last week Lord Hunt, 54 in May and a father of five, is a veteran of public administration - Oxford and Birmingham city councils, as well as of many NHS posts. He is also the son of a vicar, I notice. That may have shaped the family's strong moral sensibility.

Now to business. How does he view his successes and failures in health since 1998?

Firstly, he thinks Milburn is 'a fantastic strategic leader of the department'.

'There are very tough changes underway in the NHS, but I think We are going to get there.'

The focus is waiting times. 'I have no patience with people who complain about them.We have raised taxes and the key issue the public is concerned about is waiting, which will open the door to a successful NHS. Fail and We are in deep trouble.'

Why? Because 'without hard targets the NHS just eats money'. Lord Hunt seems to be about to cite the case of Scotland and Wales, which have long had more money per head of population, yet underperformed in terms of health outcomes. But he thinks better of it and speaks of the NHS in general, though he also admits 'we had too many targets'.

His own successes? Organising Tony Blair's 'PM's pledge' that people struggling to get NHS dentistry could ring NHS Direct. 'It is patchy, but largely successful.'

IT reforms then. Do not think that a man who has just resigned is too busy to spot what he calls 'unkind comments' in last week's HSJ suggesting he was out of his depth.'We sorted it out, we got the money, we appointed Richard Granger and got a clear direction. It will not all happen overnight, but over the next five years.'

He regards the National Institute for Clinical Excellence as a success - clinically assessed and cost-effective drugs more widely available. But he is not so keen on the Commission for Health Improvement, set to be improved under the newly published health bill.

Lord Hunt's complaint is simple.CHI is on a steep learning curve, but its reports are - he gropes for the right words - 'less than vigorous' compared with, say, Ofsted's schools role.

'It is really disappointing that they're not recruiting sufficiently senior people, both managerial and medical, to the review teams.'

In effect, peer review requires that the chief executive of a big acute trust needs someone of equal status to dig for the 'skeletons'. 'I tried to review the calibre of review teams.There was some resistance from CHI.'

Overall, he is optimistic and believes that foundation hospitals, locally accountable, are crucial too. 'I learned in four years that it is operationally impossible to manage the NHS from Whitehall.

Alan Milburn is right.' As last week's Guardian/ICM poll suggested, voters are starting to sense the scale of change. By 2008 we will be spending 9.4 per cent of gross domestic product on health, as much as France, more than most.

'We could be at the start of a virtuous circle, ' he says as he prepares for life as a backbench peer and consultant.Does he miss the minister's red boxes? No. 'It is wonderful.'