Health minister Ivan Lewis was accused of 'throwing his toys out of the pram' after an angry performance at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting last week.
On arrival at the event last Wednesday, Mr Lewis, who was speaking at a fringe meeting chaired by HSJ, interrupted introductions between speakers to launch an attack on Royal College of Midwives general secretary Dame Karlene Davies.
During the private exchange, which was picked up by the microphones and broadcast to the room, Mr Lewis told her that he would cancel a meeting scheduled to discuss the future of maternity services, because he was unhappy about a press release the RCM had issued.
He told a startled Dame Karlene that the meeting would now be 'inappropriate' given the nature of the RCM press release, summarising the content of Dame Karlene's speech. He said: 'There is a way of doing these things and that's not it.'
Dame Karlene had requested the meeting because of the college's concerns about NHS chief executive David Nicholson's statement that pregnant women were best served by large consultant-led services.
The press release, which was released to coincide with the fringe meeting on maternity and end-of-life care, said that many trusts were sacrificing choice for reasons of financial expediency.
The exchange was followed by a speech by Mr Lewis, in a session which followed the main conference debate on health, in which Unison won a motion criticising government policy on the NHS (see below).
Speaking before the rest of the panel, the minister said that he was 'upset about the way that everything is presented as all so terrible'. He said that the bigger picture showed there had been substantial progress, including an increase of 2,500 midwives since 1997.
He became increasingly angry when members of the audience questioned some of his points.
When Allied Health Professions Federation chair Graham Pope questioned whether official vacancy rates of 1 per cent reflected shortages on the ground, with job freezes and increasing demands on services, Mr Lewis said: 'You respond as though I said everything is perfect. This is the problem that I have got with interest groups.'
And the minister accused 'people who are basically against reform' of 'lumping things together', in particular by confusing the need for reconfiguration with financial pressures, and the introduction of plurality to the market.
Mr Lewis left before speeches from the rest of the panel, during which Dame Karlene warned of the threats hanging over a number of popular and successful birth units. Later she told delegates that she had 'never seen a minister throw his toys out of his pram' in such a way.
HSJ understands that after the session the RCM issued a letter of complaint and urged ministers to be 'big enough' to accept criticism. The DoH would not confirm whether or not Mr Lewis had apologised.
In a statement, the minister said: 'It is true we had a full and frank exchange over a press release the RCM unexpectedly issued hours before we were scheduled to meet at the Labour Party conference. However, this will in no way affect our working relationship.'
During last week's session, fellow speaker Vicki Morrey, chair of the Independent Hospices Representative Committee, expressed concern that the government's recent promise to create an end-of-life strategy was a 'smokescreen' for not addressing existing problems in palliative care, including a£200m gap identified between the cost of services provided by the voluntary sector and government reimbursement.
With regard to the minister she said: 'I'm sorry he's frustrated, but he is going to get increasingly frustrated unless some of these issues are tackled.'