MP's concern over hospital staff gifts

MARK NICHOLLS An MP has raised concerns after it emerged that staff from Norfolk's biggest hospital had been receiving gifts and hospitality from private contractors without realising they needed to declare such items.

MARK NICHOLLS

An MP has raised concerns after it emerged that staff from Norfolk's biggest hospital had been receiving gifts and hospitality from private contractors without realising they needed to declare such items.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb was also worried that an internal audit at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital showed that a majority of staff were not even aware of the declarations of interest policy. However, the N&N says in the last few months it has taken steps to address this situation.

Figures from the audit of the Code of Business Conduct, obtained by the MP under Freedom of Information legislation, showed that 60pc of staff who responded to the audit were not aware of the policy.

It also revealed that while most gifts accepted by staff are under £50 in value, other hospitality in the form of lunches, transport, trips and accommodation were received but only 22pc of staff recorded these in a register as required by the policy. And 59pc of staff who replied admitted they were not aware of the implications of breaching the standards and principles within the policy.

Mr Lamb said: “This audit report is quite serious in that it identifies with a widespread lack of knowledge of the policy and also evidence of people accepting gifts and benefits from private contractors, which is beyond what would normally be regarded as acceptable.”

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He said the situation was particularly serious when it involved the public sector working so closely with the private sector, particularly in a hospital funded under the Private Finance Initiative arrangements.

The audit was triggered after an inquiry into how the hospital came to be built without effective negative pressure rooms to treat certain conditions.

While the findings of that inquiry found no evidence of failure to declare an interest it also revealed that the code of conduct had not been updated since 1995 and commissioned an internal audit. The findings, which were received by the board last November, showed a lack of awareness of the policy.

Mr Lamb is now raising the matter with the Healthcare Commission and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

“I want to know if the N&N is unusual in this or is it something that needs addressing across the NHS

as a whole,” he said.

Mr Lamb added that where the public and private sector are working so closely together, there must be clear guidelines that protect employers from allegations of bribery or being persuaded to accept gifts from private contractors.

“It is absolutely essential that there are very clear rules about what is appropriate for individual employers to accept by way of generosity from private sector personnel,” he added. “The report indicated that there are some people who accepted beyond what is generally regarded as acceptable. What also worries me is that the response in returning the survey from some of the senior groups is incredibly low, it is staggering how few responded to it.”

Of 24 questionnaires sent out to clinical directors, only two were returned and from 243 consultants who received a form, only 24 sent it back.

Trust communications manager Andrew Stronach said: “Like many NHS trusts, we have a variety of audits and the key is picking up the lessons learned and communicating that down to staff, and that is what we have done in this case.”