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Editor's blog Monday 20 June 2011: EXCLUSIVE PM Cameron misled House of Commons; he met and heard Mark Britnell on NHS funding

A Health Policy Insight exclusive by Andy Cowper

Freedom Of Information research by Health Policy Insight reveals that Prime Minister David Cameron misled the House Of Commons last month.


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The Prime Minister told the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday 18 May 2011, "When I read about Mr Britnell being my adviser, I was slightly puzzled, because I have never heard of this person in my life, and he is not my adviser. However, I did a little research, and it turned out that he was an adviser to the previous Government. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Oh, don’t worry, there is plenty more. He helped to develop Labour’s NHS plan in 2000, which increased the role of the private sector, he was appointed by Labour as chief executive of one of the 10 strategic health authorities set up by Labour, and when the Leader of the Opposition was in the Cabinet, Mark Britnell was director general for NHS commissioning. Although I do not know him, therefore, I suspect that Labour Members know him rather well". (Hansard, 18 May 2011, The Prime Minister, column 342)

A set of notes dated 19th February 2007 regarding funding for a new local NHS unit, hosted on the Political Scrapbook blog, did not definitively confirm that Britnell and Cameron attended the same meeting on Friday 16th February 2007.

Health Policy Insight made further enquiries among current and former staff at NHS Oxfordshire PCT (the local NHS commissioning body). Those asked were unclear whether Mr Cameron and Mr Britnell had met in person.

Health Policy Insight therefore made a series of FOI requests to NHS South Central, the region-wide strategic health authority (SHA) where Mark Britnell was chief executive throughout the period in question of 2007.

This was a time when Mr Cameron (MP for Witney) was in his second year as the leader of the Conservative Party, which was making considerable political capital by rebranding itself as 'the party of the NHS'.

Considering Mr Cameron's roles as both a local MP and Leader Of The Opposition, an NHS audience would find the PM's claim that he had not heard of and did not know Mr Britnell surprising.

In 2007, as NHS South Central's chief executive, Mr Britnell was the man in line-management command of almost all of the NHS in the region, which covers Mr Cameron's constituency. Mr Britnell answered only to the NHS chief executive.

Furthermore, a key (if unofficial) part of Britnell's job as a strategic health authority chief executive was to know the local political players in his region and to have relationships with them - within the grounds of civil service propriety and impartiality, of course.

However, surprise proves nothing. Surprising things can and do happen.

NHS South Central today released copies of relevant pages from Mr Britnell's diary for the period in question. A PDF copy of these pages can be downloaded here.

Despite certain information being redacted, Mr Britnell's NHS South Central diary clearly confirms that a meeting with Mr David Cameron was planned for 2.00 pm until 4.00 pm on Friday 16th February 2007, with a preparatory half-hour briefing at 11.00 am on Thursday 15th.

Today, Health Policy Insight spoke to a serving member of NHS South Central staff, who was also present at that Friday 16th February 2007 meeting with Mr Cameron.

This person stressed that that meeting was not a one-on-one between Mr Cameron and Mr Britnell (around ten people were reportedly present); but also confirmed that Mr Britnell did speak to the meeting to confirm formally and on the record that NHS South Central would provide funds for the project under discussion for a new NHS facility in Mr Cameron's constituency.

Cameron on Mark Britnell: 'I have never heard of this person in my life ... I do not know him'

Mr Cameron also told the Commons that Mr Britnell "was an adviser to the previous Government": in fact Britnell had been a civil servant - a hospital chief executive; a strategic health authority chief executive; and then DH director-general of commissioning and system management.

The Prime Minister's perspective in characterising a civil servant as an "adviser" is an interesting one. The word "adviser" has evident and loaded connotations in Westminster, of which the Prime Minister is not unaware.

Of course, Mr Cameron would have been a busy man as MP for Witney and Leader Of The Opposition. He would meet a lot of people, and he could not remember them all.

But then, Mr Cameron can do his priorities in three letters: "NHS".

And Mark Britnell was one of the most important people in the NHS - being as he was, the man who could and did guarantee funding for a new NHS service in Mr Cameron's constituency.

NHS audiences have been finding Prime Minister Cameron's self-certified ignorance of Mr Britnell puzzling, as I noted.

This new evidence now shows us one of two things.

Either Mr Cameron is highly forgetful and unusually incurious about who the power-players are in the NHS, and also pays scant attention at meetings about NHS finances that directly affect hs constituents.

If so, that is scarcely reassuring. But that is the positive interpretation. In that case, Mr Cameron's words misled the House, but arguably without malice.

Or Mr Cameron's desire to have a 'clean win' on a point of contention at Prime Minister's Questions saw him take a poetic liberty with the actual events that happened.

That is the negative interpretation. And there are less polite ways to phrase it.

UPDATE: Politics Home website picked up this story, and put it to a Number 10 spokesman, who contended that the PM "did not mislead the House".

Politics Home's editor Paul Waugh pursued it further, and was told by a No. 10 spokesman, "They may have been in the same room 4 yrs ago but he has no memory of meeting".

Waugh wittily suggests that we have found a new disease: "Camnesia?"