A former deputy chief executive of the NHS has condemned sweeping new powers for the health secretary to remove and replace top health service managers as 'wholly unacceptable'.

The proposed 'intervention orders' detailed in clause 16 of the Health and Social Care Bill would allow the health secretary to remove from office or suspend the powers of health authority, trust or primary care trust board members. When MPs debated the measures last week, health minister John Denham refused to rule out using the private sector to intervene in 'failing' services.

Peter Griffiths, deputy chief executive of the NHS between 1988-91, and now chief executive of the Health Quality Service, said the new powers were 'wholly unacceptable', and 'strengthen the power of the secretary of state to intervene in the day-to-day running of the NHS'. He suggested the government's powers were already sufficient. 'On what occasions have they not had the powers to do what they would wish to do?'

The proposal was a 'symptom of paranoia', which would be seen as reinforcing the image of 'complete central control' from Whitehall, he said.

Mr Griffiths believes that the intervention orders could 'add to the slowly but surely increasing exodus of managers from the NHS'.

In the Commons standing committee debate on the bill, Conservative health spokesman Philip Hammond said intervention orders would allow the health secretary to 'take control and to position his placement to assume control'. The powers were 'draconian' and must be seen as 'reserve powers'.

But when Mr Hammond charged that 'the purpose of the clause was to hand over management of failing NHS bodies to the private sector', Mr Denham pointed out that many renal services - an example he had used earlier in the debate - were already provided by the private sector.

'We should not rule out using the private sector to try to deal with failing renal services, ' he said.

Mr Denham said the measures were 'to be taken as a last resort, except in the event of an immediate or catastrophic failure when urgent action must be taken'.

NHS Confederation policy director Nigel Edwards called for clarification. 'Is one failure enough? Would they have intervened [in this way] at Bedford?'

The intervention orders should be 'used for general systemic failure rather than specifics', he said.

Such measures should be used 'very cautiously and only as a very last resort'.

Institute of Healthcare Management chief executive Stuart Marples called for 'absolute clarity about the processes and circumstances' used.

The individuals affected should be treated with 'scrupulous fairness', he added.

Luton and Dunstable Hospital trust chief executive Stephen Ramsden - who last week defended Bedford Hospital trust chief executive Ken Williams when he resigned in the wake of the bodies-in-the-chapel row - said intervention orders would 'not make much difference'.

Mr Williams stepped down after health secretary Alan Milburn had made it 'quite clear' he wanted him to go, said Mr Ramsden. 'If the secretary of state is unhappy with a particular person in a particular place, It is quite clear that he gets his wish. '

Intervention orders would 'only make it more transparent', he said.

'At least it would be him saying It is me That is doing it. '