PRIMARY CARE Plans to contract out buying in Oxfordshire withdrawn after minister's warning

Published: 17/11/2005 Volume 115 No. 5982 Page 8

Thames Valley strategic health authority has postponed radical plans to contract out the commissioning of primary care across Oxfordshire.

In a last-minute U-turn last week, SHA chief executive Nick Relph withdrew the plan to invite the private sector to bid to manage the county's community health services.

The SHA had been planning to advertise the tender for the contract in the EU's official journal later this month, but made the decision to postpone the possible deal after health minister Lord Warner said that he was not an 'advocate' of the plan.

Lord Warner told MPs at a Commons health select committee evidence session last week that only when the reorganisation of primary care trusts was complete could Oxfordshire's new PCT 'decide that it actually needs to discharge its statutory responsibilities'.

He warned the SHA and PCTs involved that if a decision was taken to outsource the management of commissioning this would not 'in any way remove their statutory obligations, their accountabilities, their responsibilities for the appropriate expenditure of public money in that territory'.

Lord Warner told MPs that it would be the job of the new PCT board members to 'consider whether this model which the SHA has constructed is an appropriate model'.

Department of Health director of delivery John Bacon added that Thames Valley SHA would be reminded that a decision on whether to outsource commissioning would 'unequivocally' be one for the new PCT.

A SHA spokesperson said the decision been taken in the light of Lord Warner's comments.

MPs also heard from PCT chairs and executive directors angry at the government's handling of the reorganisation proposals.

Basildon PCT chair Alwyn Hollins made a plea for 'absolute clarity' from the DoH over provision and admitted that when his PCT received NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp's policy paper Commissioning a Patient-led NHS in July it 'knocked us off our feet'.

Warner defends DoH versus HSJ forecasts

Health minister Lord Warner last week denied suggestions that the Labour Party pledged to save£250m in NHS management costs because it knew it faced a deficit of that size.

At a Commons health select committee evidence session on the reorganisation of primary care trusts, Dr Richard Taylor MP suggested the policy was driven by the size of last year's deficit, asking: 'Are you not in fact being driven by financial considerations because is it not a coincidence that you expect to save£250m which is in fact the deficit of the NHS?' Lord Warner insisted: 'We would be quite a remarkable political party if, in framing our manifesto for the May election, we could have foreseen what the deficit for 2004-05 would have been; we would be vested with the gift of foresight.' To the amusement of committee MPs Dr Taylor pointed out that HSJ had predicted the actual NHS deficit 'well clear' of the election (news, page 7, 6 January).

Lord Warner told MPs that the Department of Health preferred to use its own monitoring systems: 'I do have to defend Mr [DoH director of delivery John] Bacon and his colleagues in terms of their financial monitoring services. I must repudiate the idea that we should get rid of the civil service in this area and replace it with the Health Service Journal editorial team.'