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Controversy over PCTs' out-of-hours selection

By Helen Crump

Three PCTs appeared to change the process by which they chose a new out-of-hours provider for Cornwall in a way that favoured a private firm, an internal audit has suggested.

A memo detailing the auditor's findings, seen by Pulse, said Central, North and East, and West of Cornwall PCTs altered the way they weighted bidders' responses to a quality control questionnaire which formed a key part of the evaluation of potential providers.

At an initial meeting on 5 December last year, the existing provider, GP co-operative KernowDoc, was ranked first on its answers to 59 questions relating to the out-of-hours service to be provided. Serco, the eventual winner of the contract, was placed fifth.

But the auditor said different systems were then used to calculate the weightings in advance of a meeting a week later, after financial and service delivery risks were identified as main issues.

The move had the effect of promoting Serco to equal second in the ranking of bidders, alongside KernowDoc and two other organisations.

The memo sent by David Phyall, head of internal audit, stated: 'The records of the meeting on 5 December suggests that this mode of action and the methodology followed was altered or modified during the course of the evaluation, which tends to undermine the objectivity of the process.'

It added: 'Unfortunately, to an uninitiated observer, this may appear that the process was amended to give the desired result.'

Mr Phyall concluded: 'Subject to the above reservation, the evaluation of the contract submissions...was done rigorously, with a consistent and equitable approach.'

The three Cornwall PCTs have strenuously denied changing the selection procedure, stating that the auditor did not understand the process when he made his comments.

Peter Curnow, who was the out-of-hours project manager, said he had subsequently explained the process to Mr Phyall in a letter, and he had accepted this explanation.

The letter stated that the questionnaire was only 'one of several criteria against which proposals were judged', rather than the prime means.

Mr Curnow said: 'By the end of the selection process, Serco was clearly the outstanding candidate and was selected by a majority of seven to one. It fulfilled most completely the criteria laid down by the selection panel and described in the service specification.'

But local GPs said they had serious concerns as a result of the auditors' conclusions.

Dr Robert Harvey, vice-chair of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LMC, said: 'We remain concerned decisions on large amounts of public money and the employment of local GPs are made behind closed doors and information is withheld on grounds of commercial sensitivity.'

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