THE NHS was today hit with fresh accusations it is wasting taxpayers' money.
Two weeks after The Gazette revealed 30,000 had been spent on a lavish staff party at a top Blackpool hotel, health bosses were slammed this time for flying three employees 10,600 miles for a three-day conference in Australia.
There are now demands for a full investigation into NHS spending after Lancashire Care NHS Trust – which controls mental health services in the county – spent almost 9,000 on the trip.
Three of the trust's Early Intervention Service staff - one from Blackpool - attended the 6th International Conference on Early Psychosis in Melbourne.
As well as getting the chance to rub shoulders with fellow mental health professionals the Lancashire trio were invited to enjoy a full social programme including food and fine wines from around the world and even trips around Melbourne on a Harley Davidson.
Lancashire Care Trust bosses have defended the trip, stating it was a useful fact-finding exercise.
But Michael Jack, MP for Fylde, today said: "I can't believe the trust needed to send anybody to Australia to improve their medical practices.
"The amount spent seems disproportionate to the potential gain, and their explanation very sparse. Have they not heard of video link?
"This is another suggestion NHS organisations need more rigorous regulation of expenditure and this should be investigated."
Lancashire Care Trust's Early Intervention Service, established in 2002, is currently treating around 65 people in Blackpool – more in the wider North Lancashire area – and sees around 26 new patients each year.
A spokesman for the Trust said: "Lancashire Care funded three members of the early intervention service to attend this conference.
"Staff flew out on economy flights and stayed in standard rooms in the Holiday Inn. The total cost for each member of staff which includes flights, visas, accommodation, meals, travel to and from the airport and attending the conference was 2,885 each.
"The conference provided an opportunity for staff to hear about the latest research into early intervention services and to bring back best practice examples, which can be brought into Lancashire Care's service, ultimately improving the service for patients and their carers."
The three Care Co-ordinators have not yet met with their team leaders, but theTrust say the conference will be used to add to a training programme from March onwards.
The academic programme included talks from professionals and an Early Psychosis Film Festival held at the historic National Gallery of Victoria.
The social programme on the conference website describes the event as a "change of pace from scientific sessions", where "delegates and their guests will have many opportunities to meet socially, with magnificent venues, fine wines, delicious food and evenings of entertainment."
Susie Squire, campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance said: "This is a shocking waste of taxpayers' money. At a time when the NHS cannot afford to provide people with the right drugs, spending thousands of pounds on a jolly is a disgrace.
"All available funds should be put into improving frontline services. There is no reason any fact finding couldn't have been done over email, for free."
Jane Wilde, founder of Blackpool anorexia nervosa support group Fighting for Freedom, said she had been campaigning for help for her daughter, Hayley.
She said: "Hayley had to go to Cheadle, Cheshire for treatment for anorexia.
"It's great for the health staff to escape from it all but people who go through illnesses like this can't.
"The money could have been used to help set up a much-needed support centre in Blackpool."
Earlier this month, NHS Blackpool bosses apologised for the upset caused by their party for 420 staff at Blackpool's Hilton Hotel.
The event – organised to celebrate the 60th birthday of the NHS – was widely criticised by patient and community groups who claimed it was a sickening waste of public money.
NHS bosses will now be grilled by Blackpool Council's Health Scrutiny committee next month.
Gordon Marsden, MP for Blackpool South, said: "I look forward to seeing how this conference alters the trust's medical techniques.
"The Department of Health certainly needs to think about producing much clearer guidelines on how the NHS should spend their budget, and perhaps dedicate a website to this."
In the annual NHS Health Check, Lancashire Care NHS Trust achieved a score of "good" in its use of resources and "fair" in its quality of services.