Lesley Griffiths defends civil servants on NHS report

The author of a report into reorganising hospital services in Wales has denied that his findings were "sexed up".

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Wales' health minister says it was "entirely appropriate" for her civil servants to be in contact with the author of a report into the NHS.

Lesley Griffiths defended emails between senior officials and the academic behind the report.

Officials were also challenged about why local health boards thought the government was working with its author.

The affair has sparked a major row with Mrs Griffiths facing a no-confidence vote in the Welsh assembly.

Published in May, the report by health economist Marcus Longley was hailed as an independent analysis of changes needed in the way hospital services are organised.

The challenge facing the NHS in Wales is no different to the one in England. Put simply, rises in demand are outstripping any extra money services are getting.

It means the systems are having to get more efficient - something the NHS has traditionally struggled with. The efficiency target is pretty similar at around 5% a year for both countries.

But in Wales it is arguably proving a more difficult task. The system is about 15 times smaller than England's, meaning there is less wriggle room.

Coupled to that is the fact that in England there is a much more established culture of hitting targets and having performance closely managed. Tough targets for things such as hospital waiting times were put in place in England long before they were across the border.

This has meant that the pressure in Wales has started building at a faster rate so far.

But opposition parties claim its independence has been compromised by the emergence of emails between officials and Prof Longley.

Appearing before the assembly's health committee, Ms Griffiths said: "I want to be very clear. It was entirely appropriate for my officials to engage with Prof Longley.

"I knew they were doing that. It was completely routine, but I was not overseeing it.

"I didn't collude, I didn't assert any influence, and neither did my officials."

Earlier on Wednesday, Prof Longley defended his independence, telling the same committee that his report - commissioned by local health board (LHB) chief executives - had not been "sexed up".

His emails were requests for information that was not available publicly, he said.

AMs will vote on a motion of no confidence in the minister on Wednesday afternoon.

With the assembly's 60 seats split evenly between the government and the opposition, the motion is unlikely to succeed.

'Poodles'

Plaid Cymru AM Lord Elis-Thomas will not be present because he was at a graduation ceremony at Bangor University where he is chancellor.

It was time for his party to "grow up" instead of behaving like "poodles or second fiddles to the Conservatives", he told BBC Wales.

During the committee meeting, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams cited papers to some LHBs in January in which they were told the government was working with Prof Longley's team to produce a report on the case for change in the Welsh NHS.

LORD ELIS-THOMAS'S VIEW

BBC News political reporter Daniel Davies writes: The opposition's united front against the health minister has revealed an internal disagreement within Plaid Cymru about the party's stance.

Plaid AM Lord Elis-Thomas said it was time for his party to "grow up" instead of behaving like "poodles or second fiddles to the Conservatives".

While AMs were in the Senedd chamber for the final plenary session before the long summer recess, Lord Elis-Thomas was at a graduation ceremony in Bangor University, where he is chancellor.

His absence from the no confidence vote in Lesley Griffiths further diminished the motion's chances of being carried.

He told BBC Wales: "I think Plaid has put itself in a position of being the supporting cast to a play which is produced by the Welsh Conservatives and that gets under my skin.

"This whole debate that's taking place this afternoon is a debate which puts prejudice before evidence and I don't want to be part of such discussions."

The Dwyfor Meirionnydd AM was defeated by Leanne Wood in the Plaid leadership election.

NHS Wales chief executive David Sissling, who appeared alongside the minister, said: "I couldn't comment on the reasons that the health boards recorded the situation as they did at that time.

"All I can say that it is quite clear from the evidence that has been provided by the (NHS) Confederation to this committee that the commissioning decisions were through the NHS chief executives, and subsequent events were such that we didn't monitor the progress of the report - we didn't contribute other than the provision of data."

NHS medical director Dr Chris Jones, whose emails to and from Prof Longley have been under close scrutiny, said the comments of opposition parties had been extremely difficult.

"As a doctor, the last few days have been quite painful because I have had to hear a lot of statements made in public about conniving, conspiracy, some sort of immoral behaviour, seeking to mislead the public," he said.

"Now as a doctor, that's accusing me of serious professional misconduct, and that is very difficult for me."

Conservative shadow health minister Darren Millar said there were now multiple pieces of evidence which he claimed showed the independence of the report was "an illusion".

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