Managers and trade unions are concerned that agreement will not be reached on key human resources issues affecting primary care trusts by 1 July, when the first applications for PCT status can be made.

The NHS Executive has set up a working group, chaired by deputy HR director Steve Barnett, to develop guidelines - but it is not due to meet again until 5 July.

The government's HR framework document, Working Together, said primary care groups and PCTs should be able 'to demonstrate preparedness and commitment to sign up to the HR framework and meet minimum standards on HR as set out in central guidance'.

Chief executives and HR directors, particularly in community trusts, have been pressing for agreed criteria to meet that

target.

NHS Confederation human resources chair Andrew Foster said there was very little understanding of HR issues in PCGs, where 'the vast majority are thinking about their role in commissioning and not about their role as an employer'.

He forecast that few of the new PCTs would be ready to deal with HR by next April, when they are due to go live.

Sunderland health authority chief executive Clare Dodgson said: 'To me the most important thing is to get the HR agenda into primary care.

'We have an HR strategy; we have to make sure it becomes live in the business of the NHS,' she added.

Jim Norris, director of personnel and development at Nottingham Community Health trust, said he was concerned about a 'legal minefield' surrounding the transfer of community staff to PCTs.

'In any transfer of staff, as an employer we have an obligation to ensure the transfer is seamless,' he said.

'On the date of transfer, it should appear as if nothing has happened to them.

'My concern is that, so far, no provision has been made about where PCTs will get HR advice from, and for the policy and procedure framework they will need to establish - which will affect everything from trade union recognition to health and safety committees.

'There is also the question of how you divide up services provided district- wide, such as midwifery services.

'All of this can be dealt with, but we need to recognise the issue - and it needs to go through the agenda very quickly from this point.'

A paper prepared for the Executive working group by health union MSF says HR criteria for PCGs that are applying to become PCTs should include the ability to meet safety and risk management standards and deliver clinical governance.

It says the Executive should be able to demonstrate that it will have 'a robust and effective performance-management process to monitor these HR criteria and take appropriate action where they are not being met'.

Without an agreement, it is 'in danger of losing the plot on PCTs', MSF head of health Roger Kline warned.

'Community staff nurses and professionals allied to medicine are already unhappy about the governance arrangements.

'If there are not robust HR rules, there is a real risk of a serious problem with GPs back in control,' he said.