Health secretary Alan Milburn has launched the human resources framework that will make the way NHS employers treat staff a core performance measure for the first time.

Announcing the framework and the accompanying Improving Working Lives standard at the Institute for Healthcare Management conference last week, Mr Milburn said HR performance would be managed 'as energetically as other objectives and targets'.

Resources would be linked to performance, with all NHS employers expected to deliver stage one of the Improving Working Lives standard by April next year, and to meet the standard by 2003.

Employers will have to submit more than 40 pieces of detailed evidence to show this.

New commitments to 'changing the longhours culture' and demonstrating 'compliance' with working time regulations have been added since a late draft of the IWL standard seen by HSJ last month. The new document also 'reinforces' the junior doctors' New Deal on hours.

The additions became clear as the Department of Health and the British Medical Association signed an agreement on accommodation and catering, with tough sanctions for trusts that fail to meet the required standards - including preventing them from recruiting junior doctors.

Managers and unions welcomed the rise of HR up the agenda, despite concerns about employers' capacity to meet the huge range of targets.

NHS Confederation HR policy director Andrew Foster was pleased by 'how much of a priority this is for the government'.

But he called for targets to be applied 'differentially', taking account of 'the progress individual organisations have already made'.

This 'should be done at the centre', as regional offices - which have lead responsibility for ensuring the targets are met - 'haven't really got the capacity'to do it on their own. Smaller organisations were already 'struggling to cope' with a huge agenda, and the only way primary care trusts could meet the targets would be to subcontract some of the work to other NHS organisations, he added.

Association of Healthcare Human Resource Management president Sally Storey said moving HR to the top of the agenda was 'brilliant stuff '.

But HR managers were 'rather overwhelmed' because 'there's so much of it'.

'To expect every NHS organisation, big and small, to do this is just diluting the effort, ' she said.

Ms Storey also warned that line managers were the key to improving people's daily working lives but moves to cut management costs had 'stripped out tiers and numbers'.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust personnel and development director Jim McCaffery described the framework as 'a major step forward'.

'It's a very challenging set of targets and we're going to need more capacity in HR at all levels, ' he said.

Iain Patterson, head of performance/human resources at Newham primary care group said it presented 'a challenge' during 'this period of change' but also offered 'opportunities' to newly created organisations such as PCTs.

Royal College of Nursing head of employment relations Stephen Griffin said the framework and standard would bring 'much needed improvements in the employment environment'.

But he warned there were 'many employers that had not achieved the targets' set in the HR strategy Working Together - now incorporated into the framework.

Roger Kline, head of health at trade union MSF said its representatives would 'be performance managing from below' and would 'whistleblow on any employer who blatantly ignores this framework'.