Patient care at one of the Midlands' largest hospital trusts will not be compromised despite up to 1,000 jobs being axed, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt insisted last night.

Ms Hewitt spoke out after meeting staff, union members and patients at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, in Stoke-onTrent, which is facing debts of more than #14 million and is implementing the job cuts as part of a #30 million savings plan.

One in six full-time staff are facing redundancy, including 370 nurses and 200 healthcare assistants.

Staff have been warned that as many as 750 redundancies could be compulsory.

Ms Hewitt revealed that the trust had hired 300 extra staff last year that it could not afford, which was "utterly unfair" to the workforce.

"I have been most impressed by the dedication of staff to look after their patients, and so by solving their financial problems we can improve patient care," she said.

"One reason the nurses are so hard done by here is that the services are not as well organised as they could be. Maybe these changes should have been made some time ago.

"This hospital took on 300 more staff last year but they could not afford them, and it was utterly unfair to the existing staff to do that.

"Now people will have to make some very difficult decisions, but by using this opportunity they can improve patient care."

Last month Ms Hewitt said only a minority of NHS trusts had dire financial difficulties, and yesterday she remained optimistic over the future of plans for a new #450 million hospital in north Staffordshire.

She said: "New hospitals are still very high on our priority list. At the moment we're making sure they've got the right number of beds, which can be achieved by doing more work in the community.

"What we don't want to is to find ourselves with new hospitals and the same old financial problems.

"The future of this hospital and the new hospital in north Staffordshire is very bright."

Managers at the University Hospital of North Stafford-shire will be among those who will be able to borrow money from a new NHS Central Bank to pay off debts incurred during 2005/06.

Although a number of primary care trusts in the West Midlands reported a budget surplus at the end of the last financial year, each one will have to deposit an average of 2.6 per cent of its allocated budget this year into the bank which poorly managed trusts will benefit from.

Ms Hewitt remained adamant this "one-off" arrangement would help local PCTs and hospital trusts.

The Health Secretary said: "We do need an NHS Central Bank and we need it in the West Midlands.

"The problem with trusts overspending has to be sorted out so, for example, we're putting more money into Stoke, #60 million over the next two years, because they've got major health needs here."