HEALTH chiefs in the North- East have been branded a disgrace after paying nearly £18,000 of taxpayers’ cash to a lobbying firm for advice on how to win awards.

NHS County Durham set up a “corporate improvement team” which employed a firm called Awards Intelligence for tips on ways to “raise your profile and enhance your reputation”.

One prize won by the primary care trust (PCT) – a Best Business Award – was administered and marketed by Awards Intelligence itself.

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Last night, James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, attacked the “cash for prizes” payments as an abuse of taxpayers’ funds which should have been spent on patients.

He said: “This is money that should have been gone on providing healthcare for people in this region. It’s a disgrace that it was used in this way.

“It shows how out of line things got, behind the scenes, with the administration and bureaucracy of so many of our public services.”

Under the Government’s controversial NHS shake-up, PCTs will be axed next year and replaced with GP-led organisations that will buy health care from public and private bodies.

But the trust – now called NHS County Durham and Darlington, following a merger – defended the payments as a way to encourage staff to “increase quality, productivity and reduce costs”.

A spokesman said: “The trust values its staff and the hard work and commitment they show on a day-to-day basis in working to commission the highest quality health services for people in County Durham and Darlington.

“This one-off piece of work with Awards Intelligence allowed the trust to gain national recognition, having a positive impact on staff morale and reflecting the values of the NHS Constitution, which encourages innovation.”

A spokesman for Awards Intelligence confirmed that the firm provided advice to NHS County Durham prior to its success in winning a Best Business Award.

He said: “This is a prestigious award, set up to highlight and reflect great achievement in business and the public sector.

“The awards are administered and marketed by Awards Intelligence, but the winners are selected by an independent panel of judges.”

NHS County Durham was also shortlisted for a second prize with Awards Intelligence’s help, but the nature of that award was not revealed.

Awards Intelligence describes itself as the “world’s leading business awards and personal honours experts”, urging potential clients: “Receive the recognition you deserve.”

The Northern Echo revealed last year that the company had recruited Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, the ex-chief superintendent of Durham police, as its non-executive chairman.

The story kicked off a storm, as three MBEs from the region accused the peer – a former president of the Police Superintendents’ Association – of bringing the honours system into disrepute.

Mary Hawgood, Ron Dickie and Alan Ribchester, all from Durham City, said commercial lobbying was tarnishing the tradition.