AN MP says a top performing hospital trust is not to blame for racking up a £27m budget black hole amid claims that NHS staff are effectively working with “one hand behind their back”.

On the day the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, Alex Cunningham said the record deficit recorded by North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust over the last 12 months was not down to financial mismanagement, but due to a lack of finance generally for NHS hospitals.

The trust, which serves a 400,000 population in Hartlepool, Stockton and parts of County Durham, had planned for a £3m surplus in 2017/18, but in fact ended up more than £30m worse off, according to figures published by the body NHS Improvement.

Stockton North MP Mr Cunningham said hospital chiefs had “concentrated on ensuring they deliver for the patient”, rather than focus on financial targets expected of them.

The grim financial picture faced by the trust mirrors that previously experienced by the neighbouring South Tees NHS Foundation Trust, which after revealing a £29m deficit four years ago has been forced subsequently to rely heavily on borrowing from the Department of Health for working capital.

It began a recovery programme, making tens of millions of pounds worth of savings, but like North Tees also recorded a shortfall in 2017/18 – of £6.1m – having predicted a £7.4m surplus and has admitted it had a “difficult year”.

Despite their cash worries, both trusts were among the top ten best performing in the country when it comes to the Government’s ‘gold standard’ four hour A&E waiting time target.

North Tees, which has also met the NHS’s 18 week referral to treatment pledge and surpassed cancer waiting time targets, did not respond to questions from The Northern Echo about its financial position.

But it is now understood to be developing a recovery plan of its own to clear the deficit.

Mr Cunningham said: “North Tees and Hartlepool has done extremely well for a long time, but they have run into problems now and can no longer sustain what they have been doing.

“It is not down to mismanagement, it is the whole national picture of a lack of finance for the NHS, but also winter bed pressures and the inability to move elderly patients out of hospital into social care.

“They have concentrated on ensuring they deliver for the patient rather than delivering the financial targets imposed on them.

“At the same time they are still being expected to save four per cent of their budget year on year which goes into an improvement program centrally to be re-allocated.”

Hospitals who miss financial targets receive a lesser share of ‘Sustainability and Transformation’ funding, which is intended to meet the evolving care needs of patients and incentivises trusts to improve their financial discipline.

In 2017/18 North Tees only received £1.1m from the fund, while South Tees received more than £12m.

Meanwhile, County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, which beat its own financial forecasts in 2017/18, revealing a £7.1m surplus, banked more than £16m from the fund after achieving hoped-for efficiencies.

Glenn Turp, regional director for the Royal College of Nursing in the Northern and Yorkshire regions, said: “North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust should be congratulated for putting patient care before financial targets.

“The Trust is one of a number of hospitals operating to the highest standard they possibly can, while under huge financial pressure.

“Many in the NHS feel that they are being forced to treat ever more patients with one hand behind their back.”

Prime Minister Theresa May recently promised funding for the NHS would grow on average by 3.4 per cent in real terms from 2019/20 to 2023/24, by which time an extra £394m a week or £20.5bn a year would be made available.

But Mr Turp said many health experts were arguing that only an increase above four per cent would be enough to genuinely transform the NHS for the future.

A Department of Health spokesman said North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust was being offered “tailored support” in order to deliver savings and had also been offered an independent financial diagnostic review so the reasons behind its underlying deficit could be identified.

He said: “NHS Improvement works closely with trusts to ensure the services offered by the NHS are fit for the future, while helping the sector return to financial balance.

“The NHS continues to work incredibly hard to manage its finances in the face of increasing patient demand and we are committed to supporting it to improve.”