Unhappy staff caught up the relocation needed to establish the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre have protested that the decision to centralise operations in Leeds is proving to be “nothing more than a very expensive exercise in demoralising and alienating” them.

A letter sent in December by staff based in the HSCIC’s Birmingham offices and leaked to E-Health Insider also warns that the move to Leeds will drastically reduce the expert knowledge vital to the success of the organisation.

“This is not to mention the cost implications for an organisation that is funded by the taxpayer,” the staff add in their letter sent to the human resources official in charge of the relocation exercise.

E-Health Insider understands that, with two months left before the planned relocation, just 14 staff out of 139 affected have opted to move to Leeds. Though the protest letter came from staff at the former NHS Information Authority (IA) HQ in Birmingham, others in former IA offices in Exeter, Winchester and London are also affected.

“Morale is probably rock bottom,” said an HSCIC staff member who asked not to be named. “There are a few people who have left already. The aim of quality work is badly impaired.”

A combination of factors has led to the move. The HSCIC, a special NHS authority launched last year following the Arm’s Length Bodies Review, took over some functions from the Department of Health and some from the IA, thus inheriting staff in a number of locations.

Within the same timeframe, the Lyons Review – formed with a mission to reduce government offices in London and the South East – recommended closure of three IA offices in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire; South Ruislip, Middlesex; and Winchester, Hampshire – the largest with 95 staff. Huntingdon closed last March and the others are scheduled for closure in March 2006.

The IA was a dispersed organisation with offices around the country and staff have challenged the new approach of transferring everyone – apart from a small team in London – up to Leeds.

They argue: “The IC is a national organisation and as such many of their staff is engaged in roles that require extensive travel. To insist that employees are based in Leeds when by its definition it is a multi-faceted entity that must respond quickly and with versatility to the ever changing demands of the Department of Health and the NHS, is facile in its strategy.

“To believe that this approach will enable the IC to supply the products and services it is commissioned to provide is ill founded and calls into question the strategy it is based upon. A strategy which eight months after the formation of the organisation is still not defined.”

The HSCIC told E-Health Insider that the decision to base the organisation in Leeds was taken prior to its formation in April 2005.

A statement from the HSCIC explained: “Leeds is a major administrative centre for the NHS and both the Department of Health and Connecting for Health already have bases there. Many of the former Department of Health statistical staff previously located in offices at Quarry House in Leeds have moved to the Information Centre’s Leeds building. Our location strategy is in line with the recommendations of the Lyons Review, which advocated the transfer of public sector jobs away from London and the South East.

The HSCIC did not confirm or deny the claim that low numbers had agreed to a transfer but did confirm that it currently employs around 275 people of whom 130 are based in Birmingham, London, Exeter and Winchester.

“Discussions are in progress with the aim of encouraging and supporting as many of these staff as possible to relocate to Leeds. Some 20 staff will be retained at a new satellite office in London” said the statement, adding that the centre was working within current HR frameworks and using HR best practice and policy guidance “to ensure all staff affected by these changes are treated consistently and fairly.”

Answering staff criticisms of strategy, the statement said: “We are working to make major improvements to the IT infrastructure and to bring together systems previously administered by other bodies. We have recently advertised for a director of information systems to lead on the implementation of this IT strategy.

“We are building a new organisation to provide the NHS and Social Care Communities with information of integrity to inform policy, management and the delivery of care. The HSCIC will be an organisation that is consultative, and welcomes views on business priorities and services to the wider NHS.”

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