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Sir David Nicholson scathed at Westminster

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While the campaign to sack Sir David Nicholson as chief of the NHS appears to be running out of steam, he still faced a more vicous than expected grilling at the public accounts committee.

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By last weekend the word on the Westminster street was that the campaign to sack Sir David Nicholson as warlord-in-chief of the NHS had run out of steam. Encouraged by the Daily Mail’s undimmed onslaught on “The Man with No Shame” (copyright P. Dacre) his Tory critics, many of them “usual suspects” whose target is really David Cameron, thought they’d get an easy scalp. They didn’t, but it has been more vicious than ministers expected.

‘Sir David and his senior staff inhabit a world awash with so much jargon they sounded as if they run NHS Mars’

In last Thursday’s Mid Staffs Commons debate, triggered by Bristol Tory Charlotte Leslie, a leading anti-Nicholson campaigner, Jeremy Hunt and other members of the health secretaries club rallied to the embattled chief executive. Sir David bears “some responsibility” for what happened (cue for tabloid headlines), he said before adding: “I do not believe that he bears total, or indeed personal responsibility for what happened. … it is just not true that if there had been no David Nicholson there would have been no Mid Staffs; others bear far more direct responsibility.”

That’s about right, not that all MPs took their cue. Cannock Chase’s Aidan Burley (he of Nazi stag party and Olympics “multicultural crap” fame) was vengeful, so was nearby eurosceptic Bill Cash and Bracknell medic Phillip Lee, though I was pleased to see that Stafford’s new MP (I don’t know him) Jeremy Lefroy was thoughtful.

Mr Hunt’s team, Dr Dan Poulter much in evidence, will produce their response to Francis before the Easter break, details of which have begun to seep out. Meanwhile, on Monday Sir David had to undergo another medieval ducking stool: the Commons public accounts committee; the one with real heft because it has the National Audit Office’s huge staff behind it.

Unpersuasive gobbledygook

How did it go? Not great. Sir Dave and his senior staff inhabit a world awash with so much jargon, so many policies and theoretical models, so much to juggle, that they sounded as if they run NHS Mars. This has “no connection” with real life in my Barking constituency, committee chair, Labour ex-minister Margaret Hodge, snapped at one point.

But there were no disasters and the media was (hey, what’s new?) preoccupied with itself and post-Leveson matters. “Man with No Shame: I must travel first class” was the best the Mail could come up with. Sir David’s £50,0000 worth of expenses − raised by Ms Hodge as the session closed − was the least of it.

‘Margaret Hodge was positively scathing about everyone’s failure to get Treasury consent for dubious confidentiality payoffs’

He said he had been doing three jobs with three offices (London, Leeds and Birmingham) and spent 15 hours a week on trains. Working on them was value for money. But you can work in second class carriages, protested Ms Hodge. Not on some trains, Labour colleagues protested. When I go down to one job on April 1 I won’t use first class, said Sir Dave (he’s learning).

There wasn’t time to discuss IT disasters as promised. Mostly the MPs stuck to consultants’ pay and productivity (more unpersuasive gobbledygook) with digressions into Mid Staffs and whistleblowing. Tories Stewart Jackson and Stephen Barclay were pretty fierce, Labour’s Fiona MacTaggart sceptical, Margaret Hodge (I’m a fan) positively scathing about everyone’s failure to get Treasury consent for dubious confidentiality payoffs.

And why didn’t Sir David tell Mr Hunt that he proposed to appoint Barbara Hakin as his interim deputy on the commissioning board at a time when she was under a cloud. Sir D, who looked throughout as if he’d just swallowed a wasp, said he’d lost key colleagues to the private sector; Dame Barbara was experienced and able. He’s not a man you need to feel sorry for, but in that hindsight moment I did.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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