Published: 27/03/2003, Volume II3, No. 5848 Page 6 7

Former junior health minister Lord Hunt has spoken publicly for the first time since announcing his resignation from the government in protest at war on Iraq.

Speaking exclusively to HSJ, he has given a frank assessment of his four years as a minister responsible for key areas, including IT and quality and performance.

His examination of his ministerial portfolio includes strong criticism of the Commission for Health Improvement for failing to recruit sufficiently senior managers to its review teams.

Assessing his four-year ministerial career, Lord Hunt said he felt that IT had 'turned the corner' under his stewardship, with funding for a national programme, and the appointment of IT czar Richard Granger, who was doing 'brilliantly' at a 'very tough job'.

Lord Hunt said the NHS had seen 'profound changes' in making the quality agenda a reality, with the development of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and CHI.

But he said his one disappointment was CHI's failure to recruit sufficiently senior managers to their review teams: 'How do we get on to the CHI review teams people of sufficient seniority?

'If you are a large teaching acute trust, I think it is important you have somebody on the reviewing team who is also a chief executive of a similar organisation.

'I have discussed this with CHI - but it is the responsibility of senior people in the NHS to put themselves forward.'

Lord Hunt, a former NHS manager and the first chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said he was now expecting to maintain a 'very active political role' in the Lords and was 'pondering' how best to use his experience in health management.

And he said he would take a keen interest in scrutinising the government's attempts to decentralise the NHS and ensure a 'mature relationship' between government, the Department of Health and the service.

'How does the government decide how to give freedoms to people in the NHS? It is very difficult.

'The politicians, the pressure groups... everybody wants a target to show the significance of every area.Getting away from that is not easy. But foundation hospitals offer one solution.'

Lord Hunt also said he would continue to support the government on one of its most controversial policies - cross-charging.

'I would go in all guns blazing in support of that bill. I was defeated seven times and I am absolutely determined to see that passed'.

Resign of the times: 'My wife didn't know what I had decided' Lord Hunt said he had been contemplating resigning from the government ever since the possibility of pre-emptive action against Iraq without a second UN resolution became apparent.

'I was chewing it over. In my heart of hearts, I knew I couldn't support the action that was being taken.What I had to do was face up to the consequences of not being able to support it.'

But he said he only made a final decision in the hours before it was broadcast on Radio 4's Today programme, on Tuesday morning of last week.'My wife didn't know what I had finally decided until she heard it on the radio.'

Lord Hunt said he had been delighted by the 'camaraderie' felt among fellow government resigners last week, and 'really chuffed'by support from fellow lords.

Nonetheless, the release from the trappings of government had immediate impact: 'The first thing I had to do was to buy a diary. I had a diary kept for me by a secretary for four years.

Suddenly, you are on your own. I got myself a mobile and an e-mail address.Now I am pondering the future.'