The Government successfully fended off an attempt to ensure that HealthWatch England (the national body that is being set up to represent the interests of patients) is a genuinely independent body in the House of Lords this afternoon.

Under the proposals in the Health and Social Care Bill HealthWatch England is constituted as a committee of the much-criticised NHS regulator, the Care Quality Commission.  The amendment, which I had seconded would have made it a genuinely independent body and given it responsibility for supporting and funding local HealthWatch organisations.

In the end the amendment was narrowly defeated by  165 votes to 189 – a Government majority of 24 (44 Liberal Democrats voted against the amendment, none voted for it).

For those with time to kill, my speech was as follows:

“My Lords, I think this is the part of the Bill which I assume the Minister had hoped would give him a quiet time. Indeed, he has passed on the responsibility for answering this amendment to his noble friend Lady Northover. Originally, one had to respect the Government’s intention with regard to HealthWatch because I am sure the intention was to create effective patient representation at national and local level. That intention has been challenged in the discussions that we have subsequently had and in some of the changes that have occurred over the past few months. However, it is worth going back for a moment to first principles. What constitutes effective patient representation? The first significant element of that has to be independence. The organisation representing patients’ interests has to be independent of the providers of health services, those who commission them and those who regulate them because the act of representation can potentially challenge any or all three of those interests.

Secondly, effective representation at national level must be representative. There must be real representativeness within that structure. It must be derived from local groups and local individuals and have that authority which is derived from being a representative structure. With the best will in the world, you cannot be an organisation which can speak with proper authority on behalf of patients or, indeed, any consumers if you are simply appointed from on high by a Secretary of State. In my time, I have worked for organisations that have been structured like that and I have to say that although they can do good work, they cannot be properly representative. They cannot properly have the authority that comes from being derived from the grass roots. The third element which is critical is that the work and the comments that these bodies produce have to be derived from sound local information, which necessitates being able to pick up information from local networks around the country. That has to be safeguarded in whatever proposals are put forward.

The Government originally promised us that HealthWatch England would be the independent patients’ champion. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, has just pointed out, being a subcommittee of the Care Quality Commission does not demonstrate independence. It demonstrates a subsidiary role in relation to the Care Quality Commission. I am sure that the people currently at the Care Quality Commission are motivated to try to create an arm’s-length structure. We do not know, of course, whether that desire for independence would survive the first occasion when HealthWatch England challenged the decisions made by the Care Quality Commission, or how often it would survive after repeated such challenges. However, independence is also about the perception and the appearance of being independent. How can you appear to be independent if you are a subcommittee of one of the organisations that you may have to criticise from time to time?

This amendment seeks to do three key things. It would set up HealthWatch England as an independent statutory body and write that independence into statute, set out a clear relationship with local healthwatch organisations and safeguard their funding mechanism. I recall some very wise words said to your Lordships’ House in July 2007 when we were debating the creation of the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. It was stated that,

“one signal advantage of the commission is that the money that it distributes to forum support organisations cannot be used for purposes other than those for which forums were established. Under the arrangements in the Bill, however, there is no guarantee at all that money intended to support the activities listed … will actually reach the front line. It would be possible for a local authority to say that it was delivering the activities in the Bill when, in reality, those activities were so minimal that they were hardly worth the name of patient and public involvement. What steps could be taken, in those circumstances, to ensure that such involvement in health and social care is delivered properly?”.—[Official Report, 23/7/07; col. 615.]

The person speaking said that the answer was not delivered by the Bill brought forward at that time by the Labour Government. Who was the person who delivered those words? It was, of course, the noble Earl, Lord Howe—the current Minister. He made it quite clear that the arrangements which he is now seeking to replicate were not adequate and would not, and could not, work. Yet the proposals which were going to establish the independent patients’ champion are weakened precisely because he has not accepted the lessons of his own words.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, went on to say that he was concerned that, as:

“LINks are going to assume different forms and guises in different localities, it is axiomatic that the level of activity that they undertake is going to vary”.—[Official Report, 23/7/07; col. 615.]

He asked how the amount of money in any given area was to be assessed. Therefore, I ask the noble Baroness—who will respond on behalf of the noble Earl, who gave us that wise advice in 2007—what will be the mechanism for determining how much money is allocated to each local authority for healthwatch in its area? Will this be a global sum that will go from the Department of Health to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and then be allocated to local authorities by the mysterious process by which the block grant from the DCLG is decided for each local authority area? Or will there be a separate formula that will go with that money and decide how much money is allocated to local healthwatch around the country? If it is the latter, will that information be published? Will it be possible for residents in a local area to know how much money has been allocated so that they can see whether it is being used? I suspect that unless we have the answers to those questions we will know that the reality is that this money will disappear in the wash and not be effective. The point about the amendment is that it provides a solution to that problem because the same money would be channelled through a body that would be dedicated to the provision of local healthwatch organisations and want to ensure that the money was spent properly and appropriately.

The Government’s arguments—we have had several discussions about this with Ministers, and I am grateful to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness for providing those opportunities—seem to be broken down into three areas. First, they argue that there is a natural synergy with the work of the Care Quality Commission. However, I have already pointed out that the CQC is one of those bodies that HealthWatch England may have to criticise. There is also a synergy with the work of the NHS Commissioning Board, Monitor, Public Health England and all sorts of other parts of the new NHS. Why is there specifically a synergy with the CQC?

The Government’s second argument was that there would be cost efficiencies and that this would be the most efficient way of doing this because there would be savings due to the collocation. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, pointed out, you can achieve that in many ways. You can simply say that one of the things that HealthWatch England, as an independent statutory body, could be required to do through guidance, would be to look at how its back-office operations could be provided from a variety of organisations of appropriate stature and size, where the issue of conflict would not necessarily arise. That provision could then be made by way of a clear legal agreement. However, that is not being done, and I am not quite sure why the Government are saying that there are efficiencies and cost savings that could be made only by the precise structure that they propose. In terms of providing the funding to local healthwatch, our proposal has to be a more efficient provision that will deliver the resources without leakage and without local authorities deciding that perhaps there is a greater local priority than local healthwatch.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke vehemently about the way in which the former Commission for Public and Patient Involvement in Health had operated, and how it had a wasteful and top-heavy way of distributing resources to local patients and for public involvement. That is not the only way to distribute resources. The only reason that the former commission distributed resources in that wasteful and inefficient way is because the Department of Health at that time—I regret, led by a Labour Minister—insisted that it was done in that rather ridiculous and cumbersome way. If Ministers want distribution done efficiently and simply, perhaps that can happen. If you appoint the right people to the initial board of HealthWatch England, I am sure that they would want to ensure that that is the case. It does not have to be done in the way I described.

The third argument that I have heard Ministers make for locating this body within the CQC is that it will provide all sorts of informal support and guidance—that there will be a library, information resources and so on. However, the Government have told us how important the duty of collaboration is within the new NHS and how significant it will be. Why do you need to collocate and have HealthWatch England as a subordinate structure within the CQC when there is a duty to collaborate? Indeed, why cannot HealthWatch England collaborate with other national bodies as part of the NHS?

Within this group there are other amendments, including Amendment 224 and 225, which propose that the majority of members of HealthWatch England will not be from the CQC and will be appointed by local healthwatch. I have two concerns about those amendments. Why cannot all the members be derived from local healthwatch organisations? The bigger question comes in a later group of amendments, which is: if you have destroyed the statutory status of local healthwatch organisations, how can contractors, which will be delivering local healthwatch services at a local level, deliver representatives to a national structure? Will we thereby have representatives of different local social enterprises appointing people to sit on a national body? That is a strange representative structure.

Then there is Amendment 226ZG, which is the Government’s answer as to how they make sure that local healthwatch organisations are satisfactory. This gives HealthWatch England—this sub-committee of the Care Quality Commission—the power to write a letter. It is the power to write a letter to a local authority and say, “In our opinion, the local healthwatch organisations that you have organised in your area are insufficient”. My goodness, as a former local authority leader, I know that I would be quaking to receive a letter from a sub-committee of a national organisation that did not really regulate anything that I was particularly bothered about, telling me that I was not doing something absolutely right. There would be no enforcement powers and no means of intervention, but the power to write a letter. Brilliant. Excellent. It is just what we are looking for. It offers hardly any solution, although I appreciate the concession that the noble Baroness and the noble Earl have made in that amendment.

I conclude by saying that this is not a party-political issue. The previous Government got this wrong and, sadly, the present Government look as if they are about to get it wrong. This was an opportunity to get it right. Patients need effective representation, particularly in the context of the Bill. Even if you believe that the Bill will deliver to us a better health service—and I am obviously not one of those—patients need to be given confidence that their interests will be properly represented. At the moment, the arrangements proposed by the Government do not do that. That is why an independent HealthWatch England is so important.”

 

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