MPs Say Public Role In NHS Being Undermined

Proper public consultation on the National Health Service will be undermined by “vague and woolly” legislation passing through parliament, a committee of MPs said. The Commons Health Committee criticised government proposals to limit public consultation on healthcare changes to “significant” proposals and decisions.

The proposed changes are contained in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is nearing the end of its passage through parliament. Consultation on NHS changes, such as the closure of maternity wards, was already a sham in some cases, the committee said.

“Elsewhere, NHS bodies have sought to evade their duty to consult entirely,” it added. “The Department of Health needs to take a lead and make it clear that such behaviour will not be condoned.”

MPs said the planned replacement of the country’s 400 Patient Forums by 150 “Local Involvement Networks” (LINks) only four years after the volunteer-run health watchdogs were created was unnecessarily disruptive, and might push volunteers to leave. Uncertainty about the role of the new LINks would create “confusion and inactivity”, the MPs said.

The government says the forums, which themselves replaced the 30-year-old network of Community Health Councils, have too narrow a membership. But the Health Committee said the forums should have been allowed to merge to form the new LINk bodies. “Once again the Department of Health has embarked on structural reform with inadequate consideration of the disruption it causes,” the committee said.

The MPs said the health secretary – currently Patricia Hewitt – intervened too often in decisions after extensive local consultation, leading to illogical conclusions and undermining public confidence in the consultation process.

The Conservatives said the Labour government was wrong to abolish the patient forums. “With Labour now seeking to close maternity and accident and emergency units, it is the wrong time for the government to be weakening the duty on NHS bodies to consult,” said Conservative health spokesman John Baron.

Health Minister Rosie Winterton said the government would consider the committee’s recommendations in detail. “We value and appreciate all the work that forums and their members have done, and would encourage forum members to become involved in LINks to ensure that their knowledge is not lost,” she said.