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9.49 pm

Peter Hain: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond to the debate for the Government.

I begin by welcoming back to the Dispatch Box the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend). I responded to him in his Adjournment debate on Belarus, and I pay tribute to his work on that country. I welcome too his support for enlargement, and wonder why he voted against the Nice treaty when the relevant Bill went through the House earlier this year. Opposition to the treaty would block enlargement and prevent all the countries that he mentioned from joining the EU. There is therefore a degree of hypocrisy and contradiction in that approach.

Whatever the current feelings in Gibraltar, I invite the hon. Gentleman to look ahead at what I think is a great prize for the people there, and for Britain and Spain—an agreement that will give the people of Gibraltar maximum self-government, and all the advantages of being a full part of the European Union. Such an agreement will allow them access to the wider market in Spain, from which they are largely barred at present.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the Conservative Government under Baroness Thatcher who began the Brussels process discussions, which included the issue of sovereignty. He will find that Conservative predecessors of mine, including Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, have consistently been part of that process, and that sovereignty has been on the agenda.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned, in another context, sovereignty in the European Union, and noted my remarks about sovereignty shared being sovereignty regained. I draw his attention to the words of Michael Heseltine in an interview, when he said:

was the way that "you enhance sovereignty." That is the exact point that the Government are making, and the hon. Gentleman seems oblivious to it.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)—my hon. Friend—appeared again on the Back Benches and made an eloquent speech. That is clear proof that there is life after death on the Tory Front Bench—but only when people are temporarily reincarnated on the Tory Back Benches. He expressed delight at his participation in the Irish referendum, and gloried in the no vote that was recorded. Our friends in Cyprus, Malta, Poland, Hungary and in all the countries of eastern, central and southern Europe want to join the EU, but his delight obviously

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stems from the fact that a no vote prevents them from doing so. The consequence of the failure of any of the 15 EU member states to ratify the Nice treaty, as happened in Ireland, is that those countries are denied the opportunity to enter the EU on target, as they wish to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) made an interesting speech about the euro and mentioned inward investment. I am advised that France has taken over from Britain the leadership in inward investment in manufacturing. Many inward investors—the Japanese in particular—now say that they prefer France over their traditional choices of Wales and other parts of Britain because France is in the euro. My right hon. Friend might therefore want to bear that in mind.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) back to European debates. In his eloquent speech, he made the important point that enlargement should go ahead quickly and that the applicants need a firm date to work with. I completely agree with him. Applicant countries should have a firm date and Britain, as champion of enlargement, is committed to setting that date as early as possible in 2004. I also agree that as large a number of countries as possible should come into the EU, as long as they complete all the chapter negotiations required for accession.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) and the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) made some interesting points about the European convention. I shall take note of them and look into them further. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) made a very interesting speech about a written constitution for Europe. I look forward to his Bill as a guide to further progress.

The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) spoke about the Scottish Parliament's relation to the European Union via the United Kingdom Government. However, he conceded that Scottish Executive Ministers represent, and have represented, the UK on a number of occasions. That will continue to be the case, where appropriate, and I welcome it.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) spent some time dwelling on the dangerous consequences, as he saw them, for our relationship with the United States as a result of our approach to Europe and our support for European defence. I have not seen much evidence in recent weeks that the relationship between the United States and Britain or between our Prime Minister and President Bush is on the rocks; on the contrary. However, the Opposition never let the facts get in the way of their argument.

Let me try instead to reassure Conservative Members by quoting a senior British statesman, speaking in London on 13 November. He said:

That is absolutely right. I hope that Conservative Members who disagree will take it up not with me but with the person who said it—their very own former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, now Lord Hurd.

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The Opposition have also made a predictable and synthetic fuss about European defence. In reply, I quote Lord Hurd from the same speech, in which he said:

That is the policy of the Government, but I doubt whether anything that I or Lord Hurd could say would persuade the headbangers on the Conservative Benches.

For the authoritative voice of today's Tory party, I turn to my e-mail in-box. As part of my efforts to explain Europe better, I have instituted an online debate about Britain and Europe on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. It is a very popular website, and we recently received the following contribution from a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, one Roger Helmer. I am glad that he is keeping out of trouble by sending me e-mails. Mr. Helmer wrote:

This is from a Conservative Member of the European Parliament. He goes on:

He explains:

He concludes:

So he goes on, rather like the man muttering to himself whom we try not to sit next to on the bus. We wondered whether it was a crank e-mail, as we get quite a lot of those, and not only from my friend the hon. Member for Stone. Sadly, it appears to be genuine—cranky, but genuine.

So which party is the Conservative party? Is it the party of statesmanlike Lord Hurd or the party of headbangers, like Roger Helmer, MEP? Or is it the party of the people who write letters in green ink, copied to the Queen and the Pope, about the great global conspiracy that is today's Europe? The answer was given in The Guardian this morning by Nick Kent, campaign manager for the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He said:

He also said:

I cannot but agree.

I am practical about Europe. I want to deliver real things for real people: full employment, equal rights, and an end to injustice and poverty. Up and down Britain, people know that Europe is good for their jobs, their security and their future. They may not care for Eurospeak; nor do I. They are not heady about Europe; nor am I. Like the Foreign Secretary and the entire Government, they are practical Europeans.

Practical Europeans want a Europe that works for Britain, which means a Britain that works with Europe and has more self-confidence about its engagement

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in Europe. Yes, some things that some Europeans say are daft. Some want to take Europe in the wrong direction, but most others want—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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North Durham Health Care NHS Trust

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

10 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise my concerns about the procedure followed by the NHS Appointments Commission in appointing the chair of the North Durham Health Care NHS trust.

I do not intend in this debate to raise concerns about the operation of the hospital, nor to criticise personally the new chair of the trust, Ms Angela Ballatti. I intend to concentrate on the clear faults in the appointment procedure and on the disgraceful way in which the former chair, Mr. Kevin Earley, has been treated.

Mr. Earley was appointed chair of the trust in April 1998. He and his new board faced a number of challenges, the most demanding of which was the building of a new private finance initiative hospital in Durham—one of the first in the country.

Mr. Earley's term of office came up for review this year. In July, he was asked to attend a meeting for what was described as an "informal chat" with Mr. Peter Garland, the regional director of the northern and Yorkshire health region and Dr. John Marshall, regional appointments commissioner for the NHS commission.

It was made clear to him that his reappointment as chair would not be automatic and that they wanted to "road test" the procedure for the appointment of the trust's chair. A number of points were raised with Mr. Earley: first, concern over the waiting list at the hospital since April 2001; secondly, the quality of the executive management team at the trust; and, finally, concern that Mr. Earley was acting as an executive chair.

In response to those concerns, Mr. Earley explained robustly that the waiting list delays were mainly the result of down time when the new hospital came on stream in April. Until then the trust had met all its targets and the national patient action team was happy with the trust's strategy.

With regard to the comments about the executive team, Kevin Earley pointed out, rightly, that the appointments had been made with the full involvement of the regional health authority. For example, the medical director had been appointed on a recommendation from Ken Jarrold of Durham health authority, whose chair at the time was actually Dr. John Marshall.

On the concern that he acted as executive chair, Kevin Earley reminded Dr. Marshall that on his appointment he had been told by him that, in coming years, he would have to "have his foot on the pedal because the trust had a lot to deliver".

On 31 July 2001, Mr. Earley received a letter from Sir William Wells, chair of the NHS Appointments Commission, telling him that he would not be automatically reappointed, and stating that the post would be advertised, but

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The NHS Appointments Commission procedure, under the heading, "Arrangements for local chair appointments", states:

Well, I have Mr. Earley's last appraisal here, and it states:

I could go on.

During Mr. Earley's three years as chairman of the North Durham trust, he was appraised on three separate occasions. At no time were any concerns about his performance raised with him by the then regional chairman, Mrs. Manzoor, who conducted personal interviews after each appraisal. If no concerns were raised at those appraisals, why did the commission think that he should not be reappointed?

To shed some light on that, I have to return to Sir William's letter, in which he states that the views of the regional director, Mr. Garland, would be considered, as well as the appraisals. He goes on to state:

To question that as a reason for not reappointing Mr. Earley, I refer again to his appraisal of June 2000. Under the heading "Relationships with the Chief Executive", it states:

No concerns have ever been raised with Mr. Earley about his relationship with the former chief executive by the regional chair, who, as I have said, carried out personal interviews after each appraisal. If that is not good enough evidence to show that he should be reappointed, I shall refer to The Journal—a Newcastle paper—in which, on 16 November 2001, the former chief executive, Mr. Worth, is quoted as saying that

The reason for the non-reappointment does not stand up to scrutiny. Again, if there were serious questions about Mr. Earley's leadership, why did they not show up in the annual appraisals? Why were those concerns not raised by Dr. John Marshall, the then chairman of the health authority?

Kevin Earley reapplied for the position of chairman when it was advertised this September. In fact, he was shortlisted and interviewed for the post. Again, if the commission had grave concerns about his performance and leadership abilities, as was stated in Sir William's letter, why on earth was he shortlisted and interviewed?

I understand that, following the interviews, the regional NHS appointments commission made a recommendation to the national commission, but it was rejected. It is not known

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whether a second preference was also nominated, according to the commission's procedures, but no appointment was made as a result of the process. That effectively left the trust with no replacement for Mr. Earley.

The commission's clear conclusion was that, despite an open advertisement, no one from my constituency, from that of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), or from that of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) could be found to fill that post. I find that hard to believe or accept.

Given that no appointment was made, I understand that the regional commissioner, Dr. John Marshall, wrote to certain existing non-executive members of health trusts inviting them to apply for the post. I have studied the NHS Appointments Commission's procedures on the NHS executive website and cannot find where the procedure used in this case is laid down. I hope that the Minister will enlighten me in her reply.

The actions by Dr. John Marshall raise serious questions. Who drew up the list of who was to be invited for interview? Where do Dr. Marshall's actions appear in the procedures laid down and what criteria were used to draw up the list? We know that some non-executives on the North Durham trust were invited to apply, because at least one wrote to Dr. Marshall refusing to be considered and strongly criticising the removal of Mr. Earley as chair. We also know that Mrs. Angela Ballatti was asked to apply. She qualified—rightly in my opinion—because she was the chair of the local priority services trust. However, we also know that the chair of the priority services trust in Sunderland, who is a Durham city resident, was not invited to apply.

The list of those approached and the reasons for it need to be made public. More importantly, we need to know why some people were not asked to apply for the post of chair of the North Durham trust. What should have been an open and transparent process has become clouded in secrecy, with the commission hiding behind its so-called "cloak of independence".

The new NHS Appointments Commission was set up to end the accusations of cronyism and, to quote from its website, it was created to

We are as far from that position as we could possibly be.

We must ask questions about not only the procedure used, but the people finally appointed. Mrs. Angela Ballatti is a senior tutor in the business school at Durham university and Dr. John Marshall was director of the business school. This, along with the appointment of Sandy Anderson—who worked with Dr. Marshall for 30 years at ICI in Teesside—to the chair of the South Durham Health Care NHS trust makes the perception of cronyism hard to refute.

Mr. Earley was removed without adequate explanation and that has left a stain against his character despite the much good work that he did for health care in my constituency and in Durham in general. The only reason given for his removal was that he did not get on with the former chief executive. We may never know the true reason but, since the controversy surrounding this appointment, Dr. Marshall has at least given some pointers as to where we might find an answer.

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In a private meeting with the non-executive members of the North Durham trust after Mrs. Ballatti's appointment, Dr. Marshall said that Mr. Earley's demise had occurred because he had engineered the retirement of the former chief executive, Mr. Worth, so that he could "put his boy in", referring to the new chief executive, Steve Mason. Dr. Marshall could not be further from the truth. Mr. Worth's retirement was agreed with the regional health authority and Dr. Marshall did not object when he was chair of the health authority.

If Mr. Earley committed a crime, it was that of wanting another Marshall—Mr. Charles Marshall—as the new chief executive of the North Durham trust. That proposal was blocked by the regional director, Peter Garland and, on a point of information, the present chief executive did not apply for the post at that time. Mr. Earley had crossed Mr. Garland, so it could be interpreted that Mr. Earley's removal as chair was Garland's way of hitting back at Mr. Earley's defiance.

The NHS Appointments Commission was set up to ensure transparency and fairness. This case demonstrates that, in the appointment of the chair of the North Durham trust, it has failed badly. A chair, who even the Secretary of State for Health agreed to me privately was a good one, has been removed without good reason. Mr. Earley's only crime was that of crossing the NHS's northern regional director.

The NHS appointments commissioner for the region, Dr. John Marshall, clearly has a lot to answer for, but it appears that he is unaccountable. It concerns me that if more decisions and finance are to be devolved to a local level, as was announced last week, there needs to be greater public accountability of those we appoint to run our health service at a local level. Failure to do that will allow local health service civil servants to continue to make mistakes and not to deliver the health care that the Government and the public in North Durham demand. If speaking out and challenging the local civil service results in individuals being removed, we will not get talented and representative people coming forward, and the challenging questions on the health service that the public need to be put will not be asked.

I ask the Minister to examine the issues that I have raised tonight. I will work with Mrs. Ballatti, the new chair, for the sake of my constituents, but I will continue to ask the challenging questions that need asking.

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