23 May 2002 | Robin Parker
A massive drive to improve procurement in the National Health Service has been unveiled by Lord Hunt, the health minister, who attacked the present standards as "unacceptable".
Tackling the shortage of qualified and experienced purchasing staff is an urgent priority, he told delegates at a conference on improving performance in the NHS.
The £40 billion cash injection to improve services over the next five years announced in last month's budget has made procurement as high a priority as patient care, he said.
The conference of health professionals was also told of plans for six new regional purchasing consortia aimed at improving spending strategies and pooling procurement expertise.
Hunt told the conference: "Fifty per cent of non-pay spend is not currently subject to rigorous, professional purchasing - this is unacceptable.
"There's no better area to get a grip of performance than in procurement. Board executives must consider what more they can do to improve performance."
He announced a new initiative to raise purchasing standards that would include training schemes, a leadership programme and academic courses.
Hunt's comments follow an Audit Commission report that found up to half the £11 billion spent annually by the NHS on supplies was unlikely to be delivering value for money.
It said 8 per cent of trusts had no qualified procurement staff.
Duncan Eaton, chief executive of the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency, told the conference there was no career ladder for purchasing professionals in the NHS.
The purchasing and supply function was not delivering to its full potential, he said.
"Spending will significantly increase over the next few years, and there will be greater scrutiny of how we spend this money," he added.
Eaton called on trusts to join regional consortia to bridge the gap between national and individual trust procurement.
He said the proposed supply management confederations would provide structured collaborative procurement of medical and surgical equipment and provide a means to share the "scarce expertise" in NHS trusts.