POLITICS

Published: 04/04/2002, Volume II2, No. 5799 Page 21

In the closing parliamentary hours before Easter, MPs and health ministers gave the distinct impression of being in need of a break, though in truth Easter is early this year and they have been back at the legislative coalface less than three months in an almost flu-free winter.

Lucky Alan Milburn on that score. Less so for his remark during the last Commons question time of the session that most elderly and mentally ill people's wish 'is not to be banged up in a care home' but to be looked after at home.

The remark surfaced during a routine scrap over bed-blocking.Ministers claim the£300m pumped into the system since September has cut delayed discharges by 1,400. That sounds expensive (£200,000 each so far? ), but Dr Liam Fox insisted delayed discharges that last more than a month are 40 per cent up.

In a world of fiddled figures, I am sure they're both right. But the trouble arose from Mr Milburn's laddish and habitual fondness for a demotic turn of phrase. 'Banged up'made Dr Fox come over all sorrowful. Not only did he demand a retraction, he (or someone) wound up the Registered Nursing Homes Association to protest this 'body blow' at a time when the care home industry is facing huge cash pressures.

But it was not this incident which caught my attention. Nor Mr Milburn's remark about the Tories and vulnerable elderly people ('they know all about vulnerability, they created it').

In search of inspiration I do admit being struck by his omniscient assurance to Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North. 'She is right about her constituency, of course she is. She probably knows it better than I do, though I have visited it on occasion, ' he said.

Time for a break, I murmured.

No, what most struck me in the ragged closing hours was uttered beyond the secretary of state's hearing in a contribution made by Eddie O'Hara, the thoughtful and cultivated Labour MP for Knowsley South. I was astonished by it, and remain so after talking to the MP.

What it boils down to is this. Mr O'Hara, who is no tearaway but a soft-spoken 64, had a dispute with his local community health trust, St Helens and Knowsley, on Merseyside, which handles outreach healthcare in some pretty deprived neighbourhoods. Small but important in the Blairite world view.

But the row concerned what the MP regarded as 'a trumped-up charge' of professional misconduct against a health visitor, based on allegations made by a convicted sex offender.

The details are less important (the woman won her appeal and was redeployed, albeit for£8,000 a year less), but the process is startling.

Over three years of attempting to correct what he told the Commons were 'actions of management (amounting) to maladministration', Mr O'Hara was blocked at every turn.

Rumour even got back to him that his interest in the case was prompted by 'sexual favours' from the staffer concerned - 'dirty tricks', he told the Commons. The former lecturer offered to make his case directly to the board, was refused and - after being supported in the request by the non-execs - was then asked why he had not turned up. An invitation had allegedly gone astray.

It must be said that no-one comes out of this trailing glory. The MP says the regional executive could find nothing amiss. The local media was wary. The staffer's union was not as effective as it might have been. Junior health minister Lord Hunt, when told about it, eventually sent the MP a letter clearly based on what the trust had told him. A waste of paper, the MP believes.

Why raise this Small War on Merseyside now? Because the 1 April NHS reorganisation means the trust is being wound up. 'I didn't want to go public until then, ' the MP tells me.

But he did attend its final meeting last week in a last attempt to make his case. What he got was an informal session with the nonexecs.'They were happy to accept that it fitted a pattern of malpractice that they had identified in other more serious areas, ' the MP told his Westminster colleagues. The matter has now been referred to the district auditor and may yet end up on Mr Milburn's desk. Eddie O'Hara wants him to make plain to trusts that he 'will not tolerate attempts to prevent local MPs from holding them democratically to account'.