Hewitt Hands Over NHS Decision

Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, set up an independent inquiry yesterday into plans to axe NHS maternity units in north-west England that provoked a mutiny by her cabinet colleague Hazel Blears.

Ms Blears, the Labour party chair and a candidate to become deputy leader, is campaigning against a decision by regional health chiefs to close a maternity unit in her Salford constituency. At least 13 members of the government who support the principle of reorganising NHS services oppose loss of facilities in their own back yards.

Ms Hewitt can approve or reject NHS reorganisations and usually takes decisions off her own bat. But she would have provoked outrage among NHS managers in the north-west if she had reprieved maternity units in Salford and Bury, where Ivan Lewis, a junior health minister, is campaigning against closure.

And she would have caused dismay among Labour MPs if she had rubber-stamped the decision, leaving them no avenue to press constituents’ concerns.

Ms Hewitt resolved the matter by referring all proposed changes in Greater Manchester to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, set up in 2003 to advise on the most controversial NHS changes. It will report by June 26.