NHS pay abuse fear

The public could be paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to academics who may be abusing a National Health Service pay award scheme, Cambridge University scholars will warn.

Academics at Cambridge have claimed that the NHS Consultants' Distinction Awards Scheme is subject to abuse.Next week, they will invite the university's new review body on pay and promotions to investigate.

The move comes as the Department of Health begins a review of the scheme, which was set up more than 50 years ago to reward "outstanding professional work" in the NHS, following claims that it is administered by "an old boys' network" and lacks openness.

Clinical teachers and research workers employed by a university or the Medical Research Council are eligible for the awards. Almost 3,000 consultant doctors and dentists share more than Pounds 80 million, and individuals can get salary additions of up to Pounds 52,920 a year.

Guidelines produced annually by the advisory committee on the awards, part of the NHS, stipulate that academics are eligible if they "devote an assessable amount of time to NHS work, which can be verified by their NHS employer" and if they hold honorary, unpaid, NHS consultant contracts.

NHS work includes "direct care of individual patients" and "NHS-based activities of wider benefit to patient care in the NHS as a whole". This can include "any form of clinical research that can be specifically related to the diagnosis or treatment of individual patients I but not other forms of research".

Anthony Edwards, a reader in biometry at Cambridge and a former member of Cambridge's general board committee, said this week: "I believe that there is a large number of people benefiting from these awards who should not be. The difficulty is that it can often be claimed that you are looking after patients once removed."

Health minister Alan Milburn last month called the scheme "racist" as it emerged that a white male doctor is three times more likely to get the award than an ethnic minority colleague. The minister said he would work with the advisory committee to boost equality.

Michael Corren, secretary to the medical committee of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said the CVCP would lobby for "a fair system for all". He said: "It is important to make sure that academics' contribution to the development of patient care and clinical service is fairly recognised."

An independent review body, set up by Cambridge's council last week to examine the university's pay and promotions systems, will be invited to examine the NHS awards at a meeting next week to establish its remit.

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