05 December 2008
By Helen Steel
BLACKPOOL health bosses today came under fire for spending £30,000 of taxpayers money on a lavish staff party.
More than 420 workers danced the night away at the resort's Hilton Hotel as part of the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the NHS.
Revellers at the black tie ball enjoyed a sumptuous three-course meal, entertainment from top resort DJs, singers and performers at a cost of £70 per head.
But the party was today attacked as "a travesty" and "totally unjustified" as, apart from a token £5 contribution from all those attending, the cost of the glitzy event was met from NHS funds.
And one Blackpool MP questioned the timing of last month's party, held when the country teeters on the brink of recession and many organisations and companies are having to slash costs.
Mark Wallace, campaign director of the Taxpayer's Alliance, said: "Ordinary taxpayers struggling to get appointments and patients being made to to wait for crucial treatment won't feel this celebration was entirely justified.
"In my experience even Whitehall make their staff cover the costs."
Maureen Horn, former chairwoman of the Blackpool Patients Forum, said: "This is an absolute travesty. I organised an event in January with Grange Park residents, which raised £2,700 for a children's scanner.
"It took a huge amount of effort and to hear that an NHS organisation - even if it's not the same one - has blown £30,000 on a staff party makes our efforts seem pointless. I would like to see an investigation into this."
Joan Humble, MP for Blackpool North and Fleetwood, said she understood why some people were unhappy.
She said: "There were some lovely events that celebrated the achievements of NHS staff in Blackpool, such as the Health Fair in Summer.
"I'm very proud of all the staff, but the question is whether it is wise to have spent £30,000 on a party at a time when people are feeling the effects of the credit crunch, and I can understand people's anger."
NHS Blackpool, formally Blackpool Primary Care Trust, manages the budget for healthcare in Blackpool, and employs GPs, dentists and other healthcare professionals.
£30,000 was taken from the single NHS budget the trust receives from the Government to cover the cost of local healthcare and its activities.
NHS Blackpool chairman Roy Fisher - the former Blackpool Council leader - defended the event described by some who attended as the most "lavish corporate event" they had ever attended, with "fabulous food and non-stop entertainment" including juggling acts and confetti canons.
Mr Fisher said the cost of the event was a fraction of one per cent of the trust's annual £260m budget.
He added: "It's important to say the budget for this celebration was agreed at a full board meeting, after a full debate.
"NHS Blackpool perform to a high standard and I believe we spent a similar amount to other NHS organisations in the country.
"The celebration was in recognition of the hard work of all the staff at the NHS, who often have to face difficult situations.
"I believe spending £30,000 was justified because of this."
Other NHS organisations say they seek sponsorship for events celebrating staff achievements, such as The Gazette-backed Celebrating Success Awards, held last month.
A spokeswoman for Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: "For the past two years the trust has held a staff awards ceremony.
"Staff were charged £20 a head to attend the event and the trust was fortunate to receive generous sponsorship from several local and national companies."
Chris Parks, regional officer for UNISON North West, said large-scale corporate events usually seek the approval of trade unions.
He said: "Organisations like the NHS normally involve us in functions as big as this, as it shows they are managing their budget appropriately and that they have sought public opinion.
"However NHS BLackpool did not approach us, which is very strange."
A spokesman for the National Audit Office said: "There are currently no restrictions on the amount that the NHS can spend on staff parties.
"They do not have to publish the amount spent, it can only be accessed through a freedom of information request."
NHS Blackpool was recently placed in the bottom third in the region for quality of services.
The trust maintained its rating of 'Fair' for quality of services, which covers a range of areas including the safety of patients, cleanliness, access to services and ensuring individual needs are met.
In this year's NHS performance ratings – published by The Healthcare Commission – 32 per cent of trusts in the North West received a "fair"
rating on a scale from excellent to weak.
The NAO is to audit the financial statements of all Government departments and agencies, and many other public bodies