Published: 08/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5886 Page 3 4

Health secretary John Reid was set to go head to head with his Conservative shadow Tim Yeo this Wednesday, in a Commons debate sparked by HSJ.

This magazine revealed that former health secretary Alan Milburn had intervened in the proposed 2002 star-rating of South Durham Healthcare trust - 'because it serves the prime minister's constituency'.

The Commons was due yesterday to debate a motion tabled by, among others, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard. The motion calls for an 'inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the decision in July 2002 to upgrade the star-rating of South Durham Healthcare trust from two stars to three, following the involvement of the private office of the then secretary of state for health and with the knowledge of 10 Downing Street'.

The issue was also due to be raised by David Amess and Simon Burns, both Conservative members of the Commons health select committee, at a meeting of the committee today. Both MPs have called on committee chair David Hinchliffe to launch an inquiry into the 2002 ratings.

Following the publication of HSJ's original story on 18 December, Mr Milburn issued a statement saying the allegation that he had secured higher ratings for particular hospitals was 'complete tosh'.

He added: 'There is a world of difference between asking a question and giving an instruction.'

On 21 December, Conservative Party co-chair Dr Liam Fox wrote to Cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull saying there was an 'urgent need' to clarify the extent to which ministers interfered in or knew of changes to the star-ratings.

Sir Andrew replied two days later, saying he had asked NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp to write to Dr Fox explaining how the 2002 star-ratings were 'handled' by the Department of Health. The Cabinet secretary said that the prime minister's adviser on health, Simon Stevens, had not raised the issue with prime minister Tony Blair.

Nigel Edwards, NHS Confederation head of policy, told HSJ the damage to the credibility of the star-ratings brand was 'pretty fatal', and said the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection would have to 'make a rapid move to something different'.