Report (6th Day)

Part of Health and Social Care Bill – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 8th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Cumberlege Baroness Cumberlege Conservative 2:15 pm, 8th March 2012

My Lords, I have several amendments in this group and the next one. There are synergies between the two groups, so I shall speak briefly introducing both groups and go on to those in this group.

I have tried hard throughout our debates to ensure that we have a more robust accountability framework. As I see it, the framework is in three parts. First, there is the local authority. Secondly, there is HealthWatch England. Thirdly, there is the local community. I will not go into the independence of HealthWatch England, because I debated it very fully in Committee, but I understand the passion that has been expressed on that issue. For me, those three elements balance each other, and it is important that they do, because that will improve transparency.

To give an example, if HealthWatch England makes recommendations to local authorities on how they commission local healthwatch, local healthwatch and the community can hold the local authority to account for how it commissions. That gives it a yardstick by a third party, HealthWatch England, against which to measure the local authority commissioning arrangements. The policy document produced by the Government on Friday, Local Healthwatch-The Policy Explained, states that the Government are considering how the constitution and governance of local healthwatch needs to ensure that it operates for the benefit of and is accountable principally to its local community.

The third element is local people. They are critical to the accountability framework. As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said, in many eyes, they are the most important.

The government amendments, including those laid on Friday, go some way to addressing that, but they also introduce fresh concerns, which I shall refer to later. The loss of statutory structure is a great threat to independence. The value for money and rationale still have to be adequately explained, but I am sure that my noble friends on the Front Bench will do that shortly.

My noble friend Lady Jolly and I tabled Amendment 224, which improves accountability nationally by linking the perspectives of HealthWatch England more closely to the grassroots by electing the members of local healthwatch to the HealthWatch England statutory committee. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, gave that a warmish welcome, although I say to him that that is not a sub-committee, it is a committee. It is not subservient to a committee, it is a committee.

The Government have sought broader opinion with their public consultation on that and other topics which closed on Friday. That elected membership would serve two functions: first, as a counterweight to the influence of the Care Quality Commission, making HealthWatch England more independent; and, secondly, as an agent for the accountability of HealthWatch England, keeping it in touch with the patient and user reality. If local healthwatch does not think that HealthWatch England is really speaking out for people, it can say so through its elected representatives. They would be elected against a skill specification to ensure that they were the right people to fulfil that important role. Without that, HealthWatch England is a free-floating organisation with no local connection, a mere national harvester of local data. I hope that the Minister can reassure me again that that accountability gap will be dealt with.

Government Amendment 226 is very much welcomed. I strongly support it, because it responds to my amendment in Committee. It provides for the majority of the members of HealthWatch England to be made up of non-CQC members, making it independent of the CQC, which therefore cannot dominate HealthWatch England. My Amendment 226A stitches the accountability framework together transparently, by providing for local healthwatch to have regard to the standards set by HealthWatch England. I hope that my noble friend can give me some assurances as to how that last element can be covered.

The introduction of the HealthWatch trademark under government Amendment 235C is a very interesting device and may well help. Amendment 228 was also tabled by my noble friend Lady Jolly and me. It enhances independence and transparency nationally by providing for the Secretary of State to issue conflicts guidance to which both the CQC and HealthWatch England must have regard. I hope that the Minister finds that sensible. Amendment 229 is another government amendment which I support. It includes a risk management strategy, so that what may have gone wrong in one place may stimulate vigilance in another. I strongly support that.

I am sure that my noble friend will wish to speak to her amendments, but I have introduced mine and hope that some of them find some favour with those on the Front Bench.