Published: 20/06/2002, Volume II2, No.5810 Page 7

Health secretary Alan Milburn denied accusations by the Commons health select committee that the government backed down in its negotiations on the consultants' new pay deal.

Appearing before the committee on the day the deal was announced, Mr Milburn claimed it was a 'something for something' deal which would bring benefits to the NHS in terms of consultant time and patient care.

He rejected the jibe of health committee chair David Hinchliffe that the British Medical Association was 'crowing about the fact that consultants will get to keep their private work', and was at pains to point out what he saw as the gains of the pay deal.

'Consultants will be contracted to work 10 sessions of four hours a week, compared with the current figure of 11 sessions of three and a half hours, and this will give an increase of 14 per cent in working hours for consultants in the NHS, ' said Mr Milburn.

'The objective was to get more NHS time for patients and we believe that we have secured that.

The deal will give the NHS first call on consultants' time for the first 48 hours of the working week.'

Dr Richard Taylor, the independent MP for Kidderminster, pointed out that some consultants' time was not used properly because there was a shortage of nurses and a lack of beds to allow operations.

Mr Milburn accepted this and said that he would be encouraging trusts to tackle the problem by better rostering and planning.

Mr Milburn was then questioned about the creation of foundation hospitals, a move which Mr Hinchliffe pointed out had been criticised by, among others, the former health secretary Frank Dobson, as 'potentially divisive'.

Mr Milburn denied that this would be the case: 'This will not create a new internal market because foundation hospitals will not be competing with other hospitals. It will allow them to have local flexibility on pay, because they will have different labour markets and different problems.'

In response to a question on the access of foundation hospitals to extra financial resources and being able to sell of capital assets, Mr Milburn said that a range of options were being explored, including the 'friendly society and housing association route', but that no decisions had yet been made.

Asked about the health department's new IT strategy, Mr Milburn said that there would be no 'big bang' next March when some of its key components are due to be implemented. He said that the health department was talking to a number of the major players in the IT sector to avoid more computer 'fiascos', but he acknowledged that there were a limited number who could handle NHS requirements.