Published: 15/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5888 Page 4 5

The parliamentary ombudsman is examining whether she should conduct an inquiry into the political involvement in producing the 2002 star-ratings, that was revealed by HSJ (news, page 3, 18 December, 2003).

Shadow health secretary Tim Yeo has called on the ombudsman to investigate on the grounds that 'a number of NHS trusts and patients... suffered directly as a result of last-minute downgrading of their star-rating'.

The ombudsman is still considering whether to launch an inquiry, but the Commons health select committee has ruled out its own investigation. Instead the committee is to meet with the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection at the end of this month to discuss the shape of future performance indicators.

During a Commons debate on the issue last week, health secretary John Reid told MPs that the last-minute change to the starrating of South Durham Healthcare trust was due to the decision to drop two performance indicators shortly before final publication.

Mr Reid quoted from a letter sent by NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp to Conservative Party cochair and former shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox.

Sir Nigel's letter said that 'a significant number of organisations raised concerns about the quality of the data on two of the new indicators: access to catering facilities and information management and technology. It was clear that we would not be able to resolve these problems in time for publication of the ratings and these indicators were dropped'.

The letter continues: 'This inevitably had an impact on the ratings - with some trust benefiting from the change and others losing. One of the trusts to benefit... was South Durham'.

In his letter, Sir Nigel writes that ministers 'were, quite properly, involved in the process of developing the ratings system'. He says:

'Officials rightly highlighted individual cases to ministers, and they, legitimately, raised questions about other cases, including South Durham.'

He adds: 'I am satisfied that no changes were made to the methodology in order to manipulate the rating of any individual trust. I am also satisfied that political considerations played no part in any of these decisions.'