New Health And Social Care Umbrella Body Invites Views At First Conference

A new national voluntary sector umbrella body that claims it will be the biggest representative of users of health and social care services across the UK held its inaugural conference this week in a bid to sign up members and decide which issues to address.

National Voices officially launched on 1 September, co-chaired by Breakthrough Breast Cancer chief executive Jeremy Hughes and former ‘patients’ tsar’ Harry Cayton (pictured), now the chief executive of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence.

It aims to ensure the service user is heard at the beginning of the policy-making process, before any consultation document is released, rather than simply being asked for a comment once a green or white paper is published.

Its board hopes that many smaller voluntary organisations will join, so it is not made up of only the largest charities that already find it relatively easy to be heard in the corridors of power. More than 150 organisations had accepted the invitation to attend the conference.
Sliding fee scale

The conference held in London yesterday was free for voluntary organisations to attend, and was intended to be the “sales pitch” for the organisation.  Charities that wish to join will be charged fees on a sliding scale, from £25 for those with income under £50,000, to £3,250 for those over £10m.

The conference aimed to get delegates’ ideas on what issues National Voices should be tackling. The three breakout sessions specifically sought delegates’ views on the NHS constitution, top-up payments, and the social care green paper.

The most senior Department of Health officials overseeing each of those three areas were present at the conference, and have already made a commitment to incorporate delegates’ views into policy. A conference follow-up meeting with the health minister and senior officials is planned.
Substantial membership required

Harry Cayton admitted National Voices would need a “substantial membership” in order for it to be financially able to carry out its work plan. “I would expect to have at least 100 organisations signed up relatively shortly,” he said. “We’ve already had expressions of interest from plenty more than that.”

The Long-term Medical Conditions Alliance is holding an Extraordinary General Meeting next month to consider a recommendation from its board to merge into National Voices. The Patients’ Forum is also planning to let itself be absorbed by the new umbrella.

Potential members have already requested training in campaigning, so it is likely the umbrella body will become a training and development organisation as well as a conduit between voluntary groups and policy-makers.
Bottom-up governance

As well as the board of trustees, National Voices will have a council that will meet several times a year to establish the issues it should pursue, and there will also be various fora such as this week’s conference to allow other members to make themselves heard. The trustee board will be elected by the membership.

Jeremy Hughes said one example of the kinds of subjects National Voices might tackle was car parking charges for hospital patients and carers. “No single voluntary group is taking the lead on car parking,” he said. Other examples he cited were the disparity between health and social care provision in England, Wales and Scotland, and the postcode lottery of service quality.

Regular meetings have already been set up with the Local Government Association and the Department of Health’s chief nursing officer, and National Voices is already talking to the Home Office, DCLG, and Department for Work and Pensions.

“My personal view is we should also be getting involved with things like housing and transport,” said Cayton. “We have to get patients organisations to stop thinking only about health issues.”
Problems with contracts ‘not our remit’

National Voices will not, however, represent its members on issues around contracting with the state. Hughes insisted it would be focused on representing users rather than member organisations, though he accepted there would be some cross-over of issues.

Cayton added: “I believe National Voices has got enormous potential to become not only an organisation that encourages and supports effective campaigning, and offers a developmental role for smaller organisations, but also to be a mechanism by which the government can engage effectively with users of its services.

“The government wants this as much as we do. Politicians are realising that they have to have a structured way of listening to and responding to the voices of service users.”