PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM THURSDAY 18 DECEMBER 2003
HOSPITAL STAR RATINGS/ALAN MILBURN
Asked if the Government had any plans to apologise for 'fiddling' the figures to change the star rating of an NHS Trust in the Prime Minister's constituency, the PMOS said he did not agree with the premise of the question. The Department of Health were handling the details of this case. The most important thing to recognise was that the then Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, had handed over responsibility for star ratings to the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI), an independent body. That was where they remained. Put to him that Mr Milburn's private office had been involved in an exchange of e-mails in an attempt to change the star rating, the PMOS repeated that the Department of Health were dealing with the details of the case. As he understood it, however, Mr Millburn had queried at the time the star ratings for a number of hospitals, not just the ones that had been referred to in reports. In some cases, the star ratings had changed, in others they hadn't.
Asked if he would agree that it was important for Government statistics and league tables to be seen to be above any kind of suspicion, the PMOS said of course - which was precisely why we had given responsibility for handling star ratings to CHI. Put to him that the body's independence was conditional on the non-intervention of Mr Milburn, the PMOS pointed out that the reported case had occurred before responsibility had been handed to CHI. They had only been given the responsibility for handling star ratings for last year and this year, so the situation was clearly different. Asked if he was implying that Mr Milburn should not have intervened, the PMOS said that the Department of Health had explained the circumstances at the time. The star ratings system had been in its developmental stages and the Health Secretary had been perfectly entitled to query figures which had been given to particular hospitals. The important point was that the system had now changed and responsibility had been given to an independent body which independently assessed the figures and kept them under review. Asked to clarify the criteria behind the decision to upgrade the star rating for South Durham Trust, the PMOS said that the Department of Health was dealing with the detail of this case. It was not a matter in which Downing Street had had any involvement.
In answer to questions about Iraqi debt, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister very much welcomed the initiative by President Bush in appointing James Baker as his personal envoy on Iraqi debt. The Prime Minister and Mr Baker had had a meeting in Downing Street this morning. We recognised the work he had done, including meeting with Chancellor Schroeder, President Chirac and Prime Minister Berlusconi. He was also due to meet President Putin. We supported a significant reduction in Iraq's debt. The precise figures would emerge as a function of discussions amongst the 'Paris Club', the network of creditor countries. We also believed that, as a result of Mr Baker's meetings with other European leaders, there was a growing consensus in support of our view, which was something we obviously welcomed. Asked how much was owed to the UK, the PMOS said that £620m was owed. Together with the interest on that, i.e. £525m, the total debt was £1.145bn, which was approximately $2bn.