News Focus

MPs went to North Durham this week to hear managers and unions give evidence about the controversial private finance initiative hospital there.

The trip was part of the Commons health select committee's inquiry into the role of the private sector in the NHS.

North Durham Healthcare trust chief executive Steven Mason said he told Monday's hearing that there was a lot of adverse publicity around PFI, and that 'some of the allegations are not accurate and some were connected with teething or snagging issues that any new building would have'.

'We made the point that as one of the first PFI schemes, it was very much a new initiative and people learned as they went along.'

But Unison North East head of health Robin Moss told the MPs that the PFI hospitals in Durham and Carlisle had reduced bed numbers, cut budgets and cancelled operations.

Local Royal College of Nursing representative Jan Lemmon, a staff nurse at North Durham, described a litany of problems in the building in both staff and patient areas.

An evidence session in the more traditional surroundings of a Westminster committee room last week heard health secretary Alan Milburn give advance notice of plans to allocate£40m to fund up to 25,000 elective operations in private hospitals for NHS patients - a doubling of last year's allocation, which bought around 10,500 private sector operations.

He also revealed plans to 'buy up' the entire capacity of some private hospitals for years at a time. Mr Milburn said he was examining the situation of private sector hospitals that were running on 'pretty low occupancy'.

The Department of Health could 'effectively buy up for a period of a few years that capacity and monopolise it for NHS patients', he said.

The health secretary also told MPs that there was anecdotal evidence of differing prices charged to the NHS by private hospitals in different parts of the country.

He aimed to get 'better value for money' in longer-term contracts with the private sector, 'probably by using NHS reference costs as a benchmark'.