Regulators objected to moves for Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals to consider appointing its long-serving chief executive as its chair, saying it had “very real concerns”, HSJ can reveal.

In a letter to Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals Foundation Trust, NHS Improvement said it did not consider the process in which Sir Leonard Fenwick was a candidate to be chair as “acceptable in governance terms”.

The exact reasons for NHS Improvement’s objections are unclear, as is to what degree they related to Sir Leonard’s membership of the trust’s nominations committee.

The letter, disclosed following a freedom of information request, was sent by the national regulator’s deputy chief executive Stephen Hay to the FT’s nominations committee chairman Peter Ramsden in September last year.

Mr Hay said in the letter: “I repeated NHS Improvement’s very real concerns that the trust’s chief executive is being considered as a candidate for the role of chair notwithstanding the express recommendations against such appointments in the code of governance and other relevant provisions, including those on demonstrating appropriate independence in such appointments.

“The trust is already well aware of these concerns which were set out in prior correspondence. To be very clear, NHS Improvement does not consider the appointment of the CEO as chair acceptable in governance terms.”

Sir Leonard has been on extended leave since January but the foundation trust has not given any reason why. It is still not known why he went on leave, nor if or when he will return.

HSJ has also revealed today that allegations of bullying were made to the trust against Sir Leonard shortly before his extended absence began. There have been calls for transparency about the reasons for the absence.

Current chairman, Mr Smith, was due to step down in September after nine years in post, but has remained in post.

The letter was in response to correspondence from Mr Ramsden to the regulator in July last year, in which he said Sir Leonard had been shortlisted for interview by the nominations committee.

Mr Ramsden added: “Sir Leonard was shortlisted for interview by the nominations committee in good faith based on an assessment of his skills against the chairman job description and person specification, and based on the available advice we had received from Monitor prior to our short listing meeting in March 2016.”

Mr Ramsden said that following a letter from NHS Improvement in May the planned interviews had been postponed.

In his response letter Mr Hay said the pair met in August, and discussed a number of scenarios for resolving the issue including:

  • Terminating the existing chair appointment process and beginning a new one;
  • Mr Smith’s position as chair being extended for a few months to cover the new process or appointing a vice chair if Mr Smith did not agree to an extension; or
  • The trust to write to NHS Improvement’s general counsel to agree appropriate steps to remove the trust’s chief executive from membership of the nominations committee.

The trust confirmed in January that Sir Leonard had gone on extend leave, and in a statement from the chairman and non-executive directors the trust said Sir Leonard’s duties will be covered by business and development director Louise Robson and medical director Andrew Welch.

In a statement today the trust said the identity of the candidates who apply for any role within the trust is confidential and it would not be ”appropriate” to comment on or confirm who had applied for the chairman role.

It added: “The chair has reached the end of his term of office and in line with usual practice we have been out to advert on two occasions to seek a suitable replacement.

”These were not progressed and with the advice of NHSI, the council of governors agreed to extend the current chair’s term of office for a further three months when they will then review the position.”

NHS Improvement did not provide a comment in response to contact from HSJ in relation to the chair appointment.

However, in a statement issued at the time Sir Leonard’s absence was confirmed, the regulator issued a statement saying its chief executive Jim Mackey, who is on secondment from neighbouring Northumbria Healthcare Foundation Trust, had “recused himself from any involvement” in the issue.

Sir Leonard, the NHS’s longest serving chief executive, guided his trust to becoming the first teaching hospital to be ranked “outstanding” by the Care Quality Commission in June last year.

Bullying allegation raises questions over Sir Leonard’s absence