Ambulance Watch: Concerns raised over appointment of private sector ambulance chief to top NHS role at East of England Ambulance Service Trust
PUBLISHED: 10:08 16 May 2013 | UPDATED: 18:30 17 May 2013
A health minister and a union have raised concerns with the region’s ambulance service over the appointment of a private sector chief to a top NHS role.
The fears were raised with the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) by Unison and by health minister Norman Lamb after private ambulance boss Rob Ashford was appointed to a £100,000 a year post at the trust.
Mr Ashford is currently chief executive of private ambulance provider Thames Group, which has received more than £1.3m in the last year from the EEAST.
His appointment came weeks after £340,000 was spent by the trust on hiring ambulances from Thames Group.
The ambulance service said its procurement department had carried out an “independent check” on the spending.
In his new role, Mr Ashford will have the power to spend NHS money on private ambulances.
There is no suggestion that he will favour Thames Group as a provider and he is expected to resign as chief executive before taking up his NHS role.
Mr Ashford’s friendship with ambulance board member and the EEAST’s director of operations, Neil Storey, was declared by Mr Storey at an ambulance board meeting last May, and has raised further concerns with Unison.
In his new post Mr Ashford will report directly to Mr Storey but the trust said the recruitment of Mr Ashford had been transparent and open.
Since Mr Storey was appointed to the trust’s board in May 2012 spending by the EEAST on Thames Group ambulances has soared, while front-line recruitment has been frozen.
There is no suggestion that Mr Storey has favoured Mr Ashford’s Thames Group as an ambulance provider.
The ambulance service denied there was a conflict of interest in Mr Ashford’s appointment.
Associate director of communications Chris Hartley said spending on private ambulances was being reduced through the ambulance service’s turnaround plan which was announced at the end of April.
He also said that Mr Storey was not directly responsible for buying the services of private ambulance firms.
But Unison and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb have raised their concerns with the EEAST’s interim chief executive Andrew Morgan.
Mr Lamb said: “It would be entirely wrong to leap to conclusions but I believe it clearly needs to be investigated.
“What I continue to find extraordinary is that they had a recruitment freeze at a time of intense pressure while they were spending money on private ambulances.
“I still have not had a clear explanation as to why they did that. It doesn’t stand up.”
A spokesman for the EEAST said Mr Morgan had looked into Mr Ashford’s appointment and not found anything to be concerned about.
The spokesman said: “The recruiting process was completely open and fair and they (Mr Storey and Mr Morgan) have every confidence in it.
“He (Mr Morgan) has looked into it with the relevant authorities and seen nothing. They are adamant they have got the best man for the job.”
Gary Applin, Unison branch secretary for the EEAST, said he had put forward his concerns to Mr Morgan over Mr Ashford’s appointment about a potential “conflict of interest”.
And he criticised the amount spent by the trust’s board on private ambulances providers including Thames Group.
“I would think that any taxpayer would want to know why it (the money) has gone there,” he said.
As reported in The Eastern Daily Press’ Ambulance Watch campaign, the trust spent almost £13m in 17 months on private ambulance providers.
Figures published by the EEAST show that since last May, the service’s spending on Thames Group’s ambulances has ballooned, reaching £342,873 this March.
In the first three months of this year £754,163 was spent by the EEAST on Thames Group ambulances compared to £158,537 in the same period of 2012 and £26,222 in the same period of 2011.
The trust’s spending on Thames Group has increased steadily throughout the year with no money spent in May 2012.
It reached £179,189 in August 2012 and £135,016 in September before peaking in March 2013.
Mr Hartley from the EEAST said this was in line with a general increase in spending on private ambulances by the ambulance trust.
Last year Mr Ashford reported a “fantastic 2012” for Thames Group.
The firm was sold in February to a Spanish firm.
A date has not yet been fixed for Mr Ashford to take up his role as sector leader for the EEAST where he will be responsible for bringing down response times in Essex and raising staff morale.
After his NHS appointment was announced at the end of April, Mr Ashford resigned as the chairman of the trade body which represents private ambulance providers, the Independent Ambulance Association (IAA).
Mr Ashford was contacted on Thursday for comment separately from Mr Morgan and Mr Storey at the ambulance service but has not yet responded.