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Rules over civil servants leaving for jobs in private sector need to be strengthened, says Labour

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e7761 (Published 14 November 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7761
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. 1BMJ

Labour has urged the government to re-examine the rules governing transfer of senior civil servants to the private sector, amid concerns about a possible increase in the number of key figures from the Department of Health going to companies benefiting from government policies.

It comes after the news that Jim Easton, the head of the department’s quality, innovation, productivity, and prevention (QIPP) efficiency programme, is to depart to become managing director of Care UK.

Easton had served as the department’s national director for improvement and efficiency since 2009, holding the post jointly with that as the NHS Commissioning Board’s director of transformation since February 2012.

Questions have been raised about the switch, given Care UK’s status as a prominent private provider of NHS services, which was enhanced last week when the company acquired the competitor Harmoni, the United Kingdom’s largest provider of GP out of hours and NHS 111 urgent call services.1

Easton had overseen the rollout of the new 111 helpline—designed to simplify access to urgent but non-emergency care—as part of his role at the department.

Under business appointment rules, civil servants at Easton’s level are subject to a two year ban on lobbying government on behalf of their new employer after they leave the civil service. But the rules allow for the ban to be reduced by the independent advisory committee on business appointments “if they consider this to be justified by the particular circumstances of an individual application.”

Another high profile departure from the health department was that of Mark Britnell, the former director general of commissioning, who was able to begin a new role at the management consultancy firm KPMG in 2009 within three months of leaving his post and who was barred from lobbying the government only for the first nine months of his new job.2

His successor at the department, Gary Belfield, who held the post of acting director of commissioning and system management from June 2009, also left to join KPMG in May 2010.

Labour’s shadow health minister Jamie Reed said that the rules may need to be tightened, given the “increasingly common” potential conflicts occurring.

Reed said, “It should never be the case that ministers or senior officials can jump ship to make a fast buck in the private sector—cashing in on their contacts and, worse still, major decisions they had personally taken in public life.

“As the government ushers the private sector into the NHS, such conflicts of interest risk becoming increasingly common. The Cabinet Office’s rules must be strong enough to ensure this cannot happen in our health service. Where the rules appear to fall short, they must be strengthened.”

Ivan Camphor, a GP in the Wirral and medical secretary of the Mid Mersey Local Medical Committee, agreed. “This is what’s going to happen with the transfer in intelligence. The rules have to be toughened up.”

But Britnell, now head of healthcare (UK and Europe) at KPMG, told the BMJ, “There is nothing wrong with getting private sector experience as long as we all bring it back to the NHS at some stage.”

A spokesperson for the NHS Commissioning Board said, “We can confirm that Jim Easton has stood down from his post at the NHS Commissioning Board. His appointment to a new job is subject to approval in line with the business appointment rules on senior Department of Health staff moving to new roles in the independent sector.

“In Jim’s role at the Department of Health, as national director for improvement and efficiency, the rules apply for a two year period after leaving. Therefore, we cannot say any more before an application to take up an outside appointment has been considered under those rules.”

A Care UK spokeswoman, Sheila Roberts, said, “We can confirm that we have had discussions with Jim Easton. However, as any movement of senior Department of Health employees to new roles in the independent sector is subject to business appointment rules, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7761

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