YORKSHIRE TERRIER STEVE AINSWORTH

Some years ago my name, linked with that of a woman, appeared on the front page of a Sunday paper.

Naturally it is rather embarrassing to know that one's name is being read at half a million breakfast tables, and even more disquieting when it has been bracketed with that of a woman of some notoriety - in this case, Edwina Currie, then junior health minister.

It was not long before she fell out of favour during the great salmonella-in-eggs crisis of 1988.

But what, you ask, had Ms Currie to do with me? She was backing Ainsworth's Golden Stethoscope scheme.

This was a simple proposal based on similar schemes pioneered by Michelin, with its stars, and the AA, with its spanners. Why couldn't the NHS use golden stethoscopes to publicly indicate the quality and type of facilities one might find in GPs' surgeries? It made sense to me - and apparently to Ms Currie, too.

It was, of course, a disaster - almost inevitably, given Ms Currie's support. The idea was shot down in flames by the local medical committee, which launched such a fusillade of objections that I hardly dared put my head above the parapet for months.

It was clearly an idea whose time had yet to come: now, I see that the Golden Stethoscope scheme mark II has made its appearance - in the form of starratings for hospitals.

I had to laugh. It is such an attractive idea. But what does it prove? I visited a sick relative in a three-star hospital recently, the much televised St James' in Leeds. I had read only the week before that the award of the full three stars included cleanliness.

So I was taken aback to find the lift reminiscent of a service lift in a run-down warehouse, to see litter in the corridors leading to the ward and to spot walls clearly in need of a good wash-down.

This is not a specific criticism of Jimmy's; maybe I just called on a bad day. But what if those who make the awards had called on a bad day, too? And how many hospitals did the inspectors visit on unusually good days? How much effort are hospitals putting into making damn sure that inspectors see a good day and not a bad one?

An obvious problem for many star-rating systems is that they are like certificates of virginity - valid only on the day of issue.

Yet I remain a firm advocate of such public accolades. My beef is with the system; snapshot views tell the public very little.

In this age of electronic miracles, and when public services are expected to be more accountable than ever, might not computers, video cameras and the Internet provide the answer?

Forget annual reviews - let's have real-time updates on performance figures such as waiting lists and mortality data, comparing one hospital or surgeon with the next, and let's have the figures updated daily.

Hard facts on performance should be easy to collect and made available on the Internet, but what about soft data - cleanliness, for example?

Miniature video cameras seem to cost peanuts these days, so why not have Litter-cam, Cockroach-cam and Mouse-cam which any member of the public with a PC could access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? Let the public look for themselves at what is happening in their local hospital, or any hospital in the country.

Let's all have a gander at the kitchens and a wander round the wards. And not only the general public, but patients too. If they can have a personal bedside entertainment centre which includes a TV screen, why not let them take virtual tours of the premises? Bedridden patients could report anything they thought was below standard.

It seems such a good idea that I was sure someone in the world must have already done it. But no, a quick check on the web assured me that no-one has thought of it so far.

All kinds of objections would be raised to a proposal for such intrusive public monitoring: not many people would be happy having their haemorrhoid operation broadcast, let alone being spotted in the queue for the STD clinic. But surely these problems can be got around, and perhaps such small invasions of privacy in the interests of safety, standards and accountability are worth paying.

Maybe the Department of Health might be prepared to run a pilot scheme. If it were a success, perhaps the idea could be extended not only to other hospitals but to other walks of life.

Perhaps we might have webcams installed in farms to see the conditions in which hens, sheep and cows are being kept: many patients complain of being treated like cattle, so perhaps they would like to make a direct comparison.

In the meantime, I am firmly convinced that star-ratings can be made into a winner - and I hope Edwina Currie still does too.