According to the Conservative Party trust board appointments show evidence of 'Labour gerrymandering'.
Public advertisements have been placed, MPs and local authority chief executives have been asked to make nominations, and around 3,000 completed application forms have already been received for the 302 health authority board appointments that fall this month.
Last week health secretary Frank Dobson announced that the government was well on the way to fulfilling its pledge to make trust boards more representative of their communities.
Since the government took office last May, Mr Dobson revealed there had been an increase in the appointment of women as non-executives and chairs of trusts, and the proportion of appointees from ethnic minorities has almost doubled (see charts below).
These figures represent 'a significant improvement on the position we inherited', trumpeted Mr Dobson. 'Substantial progress has been made to meet the government's election manifesto commitment to make NHS trust boards more representative of their local communities.'
So far Mr Dobson has filled 884 trust board vacancies, with a further 121 under consideration (out of a total of 2,509 places). From last June the person specification for non-executives and chairs was changed to encourage more NHS users and carers. Candidates are also now expected to live in trust area.
MPs and local authorities were also asked to nominate candidates and, according to the Conservative Party, Mr Dobson's figures for political activists now appointed to trust boards show evidence of 'Labour gerrymandering'.
Out of 264 appointees who have declared that they are politically active, 206 are Labour supporters, compared with only 29 Conservatives and 25 Liberal Democrats. About 117 of these appointees are Labour councillors, compared with six Conservatives and 16 Liberal Democrats.
Two weeks ago shadow health secretary John Maples accused Mr Dobson of having 'a secret policy' to appoint more councillors to trust boards, a policy Mr Maples claimed had not been explicit and, therefore, broke 'Nolan' rules. He also claimed 'political manipulation', citing as evidence the fact that local authority nominations for trust board appointees had been sought from local council leaders - and most local councils are Labour controlled.
Conservative group leaders on at least 54 councils said they had not been consulted about these appointments, he added.
At the time, public appointments commissioner Sir Len Peach rejected most of Mr Maples complaints, and Department of Health permanent secretary Chris Kelly admitted that, because of 'an error' some council leaders did not consult the minority parties about their nominations. It had been intended to canvass local authority chief executives for board nominations.
However, Mr Dobson's revelations that 79 per cent of all politically active trust board appointments are Labour Party activists, compared with 11 per cent of Conservatives, and that 84 per cent of councillors appointed represent the Labour Party, compared with 3 per cent representing the Conservatives, is, according to Mr Maples, 'an example of gross political bias'.
'When I announced my investigation into board appointments, which showed that the government was loading the boards of trusts with Labour activists, Frank Dobson described this as 'a wild accusation',' says Mr Maples. Even the prime minister responded, saying that the allegation was 'rubbish' and that it should be withdrawn, he adds. 'We can now see this for what it was - the bluster of guilty men caught red-handed in deception.'
Mr Maples says he set out to demonstrate that Labour had deliberately appointed its activists to key posts in the NHS. 'The government's own figures now prove that I was correct. The appointments process was blatantly rigged to secure the appointment of Labour activists by consulting only with mostly Labour council leaders. Frank Dobson stands condemned by his own figures.'
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Simon Hughes agrees that the number of Labour Party activists on trust boards is 'a matter of concern'. Board members have to be appointed because of their competence, integrity and ability to do the job, not just for political reasons, he says. 'Mr Dobson says that boards are now more representative of the communities they serve, but what about the communities served by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors?'
Mr Dobson's says the new figures cannot be compared with figures for earlier years because not all the existing members had been asked to declare their political activity. He is adamant that the government is committed to an 'open and transparent' process for NHS appointments.
MPs and local authorities were asked to nominate candidates for consideration, not for reserved places, but to widen the base from which candidates could be drawn, he says. Over 1,800 nominations were received from MPs and local authorities and the nominated candidates, and those who had responded to public advertisements. All went through the same selection process, including an interview panel with an independent member.
'All appointments were made on merit under the Nolan rules,' says Mr Dobson. 'The balance of board membership is moving in favour of ordinary NHS users and carers and those with a community voice.' Around one-third of those appointed were existing board members, reappointed for a further term.
Derek Day, of the NHS Confederation, says what is important is whether the new appointees are committed to the NHS. 'There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Dobson is loading the boards with Labour people,' he says. But Mr Day would like to see appointments extended to people who work, as well as live, in the area served by the trust. 'If a person spends their working life in an area and knows and understands it, that person should be eligible for appointment to a trust board,' he says.
Candidates for this month's appointments will now be subject to the same process, although all incumbents will be asked to serve an extra three months until the end of June 'to allow proper notice to be given to all appointees', says Mr Dobson.