The NHS human resources strategy was broadly welcomed at the HR managers' conference last week. But funding, coercion from the centre and consistency of standards were some of the concerns. Barbara Millar and Mark Crail report

Any idea human resource managers may have had of discussing something other than the NHS's HR strategy at their conference last week rapidly disappeared as it became clear that it was to be the venue for the launch.

Health minister Alan Milburn concentrated his opening speech on nurses - and even mentioned pay, in a move clearly aimed at defusing the mounting campaign on their behalf - but from then on, it was the strategy all the way.

NHS HR director Hugh Taylor, who has worked on the strategy since he took up the post in January, came prepared for accusations that the initiative would mark an end to the freedom trusts have enjoyed.

The strategy 'is not an attempt to centralise the management of HR in the NHS,' he told the conference. 'I have spent my life in HR devolving it to the line.'

Too often, he said, 'when we try to do something of national significance, it is seen as a central initiative. I want this to be seen as a genuine commitment to work together across the NHS on a national strategy to raise standards.'

The new framework would mean chief executives and chairs being held to account. 'If we want to get this issue onto the agenda of chief executives and chairs, it has to have a hard edge and be part of their bottom line.'

There would, he told the conference, be 'a new role' for regional offices.

'We don't want to create a separate tier of management over trusts in the area of HR management. But it is important to make it work. So there will be a process of accountability through regional offices.'

That meant regions drawing more on existing HR expertise and building up their 'sensitivity and capability in this area'.

And acknowledging that managers were already under strain, he admitted: 'It would be astonishing if people did not feel intimidated by some of the issues raised. You are already struggling to keep pace with a huge programme.'

When Mr Taylor sat down, Bryan Carpenter, HR director for South Devon healthcare trust, told him: 'You used the word intervention. I was sorry to see we are still in this climate of 'if you don't perform we are going to punish you'.

'If we are going to achieve the strategy, we need to work in a climate that encourages us to take risks, be innovative and make mistakes.'

But Mr Taylor took a tough line. 'The government would not be happy with an environment where whether you do it or not is a matter of indifference,' he told him.

'What is the point of having a standard if you don't do something about it if people don't reach it. We have to address the issue of management failure. We cannot dodge that.

'I am a great believer in a blame-free culture, but I am sure that, from time to time, one admiral will be pulled out and shot pour encourager les autres.'

The strategy has generally drawn a warm response. Harry Hayer HR director for Addenbrooke's trust, thinks his colleagues will welcome it.

'It is good to hear it will be discussed with chief executives and chairs,' he says. 'It is clearly their agenda as much as ours. It doesn't just concentrate on the HR function but promotes HR management in the NHS.'

On the other side of the fence, Stephen Griffin, director of employment relations for the Royal College of Nursing, also welcomes it, but is concerned at how it will be performance managed.

'Will it be given the same level of attention as other, harder issues like money and clinical activity?' he asks.

'The objectives are extremely good and give trusts a number of targets to go for. But we have to be able to point to where progress is being made, and to know what happens when progress isn't made.'

Mr Griffin hopes that work can now begin on restoring a national framework for pay. 'There are a number of issues to address and we would hope to be given an indication fairly soon on the direction of travel,' he says.

'A big implementation exercise that follows any strategy document, and there will now be a lot of activity to try to make this a reality. But that should not be seen to distract us from fundamental issues about pay and career structures.'

John Northrop, director of Pay and Workforce Research, describes the strategy as 'a classic tight-loose approach'. He says: 'You give people very specific, tight objectives, but leave them free to decide how to achieve them.'

But he does raise concerns. NHS spending on HR is low - a PWR survey found the NHS spent 1.38 per cent of its pay bill on HR, compared with 2 per cent for the whole public sector and 2.3 per cent in the private sector.

And he says community trust HR directors will be concerned that primary care groups will not be made to adhere to the same strict standards as the rest of the NHS. 'HR practices in general practice are non-existent,' he says.

He cites standards aimed at ensuring staff are protected against violence as a particular problem. 'People from community trusts believe that if primary care doesn't have the same standards, we are going to have equal value claims.'

Suzanne Tyler, deputy director of the Institute for Health Services Management, 'warmly welcomes' the strategy as a 'good beginning', even though it 'could have been more visionary'.

But not everyone is impressed with it. Roy Lilley, who chaired the NHS Trust Federation HR standing committee in the early 1990s, describes it as 'typical of the kind of tat you get from HR departments'.

He says: 'The HR community failed the NHS during the reforms by and large, producing nothing of any great value, and now after a year of consultation and 50 focus groups, all they have come up with is a document of fluff and waffle.'

He is particularly critical of plans for an HR research and development programme. 'What the hell is it for?' he asks. 'What were the Thatcher reforms all about if they weren't one great R&D melting pot?'