THE Government's chief medical officer is to give evidence at the Richard Neale inquiry, it was confirmed last night.

Lawyers representing the inquiry panel have asked Professor Sir Liam Donaldson to attend the inquiry in York to answer questions.

Sir Liam, who held a senior health authority post in the region in the mid-1990s, has already submitted written evidence to the inquiry.

But last night, Colin Phillips, secretary to the inquiry, confirmed that Sir Liam would be giving evidence in person.

"We have asked him to come along and supplement his written evidence with oral evidence," said Mr Phillips.

"He is not coming as the chief medical officer, he is coming as one of the key people in the background to what went on."

Graham Maloney, advisor to the 250-strong Action and Support Group for Medical Victims of Richard Neale, said: "It is great news - it is a step in the right direction."

The inquiry, which got under way on May 1, has been asked to look at how the NHS handled the huge number of complaints made against Mr Neale, which culminated in the gynaecologist being struck off by the General Medical Council in 2000.

Campaigners have always claimed the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton failed to take complaints against the former head of obstetrics and gynaecology seriously.

Sir Liam was general manager of the former Northern and Yorkshire regional health authority in 1995 when bosses at the Friarage agreed to pay Mr Neale £100,000, buy his private consulting rooms for £57,000 and give him a reference to persuade him to leave.

Mr Neale subsequently went on to botch operations in the NHS and private sector before he was suspended.

The Department of Health has stressed that Sir Liam was never in a position of accountability for Mr Neale's conduct.