Report (6th Day)

Part of Health and Social Care Bill – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 8th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Wheeler Baroness Wheeler Opposition Whip (Lords) 2:45 pm, 8th March 2012

My Lords, with an additional 68 government amendments tabled at the end of last week on the issue of HealthWatch England and the now much altered healthwatch organisations, it is somewhat of a challenge to work out exactly what the Government want from HealthWatch England and local healthwatch organisations. Why has not the Government's time since Committee stage been spent on trying to address the issues and concerns raised by noble Lords which would ensure that HealthWatch England and local healthwatch organisations have the real status and authority to do the job that we all recognise is required of them? Instead they have concentrated on compiling one of the most confusing additional sets of amendments that we have seen on this Bill, which will seriously undermine the ability of both the national and local organisations to act as an effective and robust watchdog for patients and the public.

The new local arrangements for healthwatch organisations provide a plethora of contradictions and confusions and we shall discuss those under a later group. Sadly, none of that addresses the continuing concern across the House and among key patients' groups and organisations about the HealthWatch-CQC relationship. Fortunately, Amendment 223A, from the noble Lord, Lord Patel, my noble friends Lord Harris, Lord Whitty and myself does. Those noble Lords have all made a coherent and powerful case for the amendment and for ensuring that HealthWatch England is independent. The amendment provides for a body corporate, with clear primary duties to represent the interests of patients and users of the National Health Service and of social care services, independent of any provider or regulator of those services. As well as powers to provide information and advice on the views of patients and standards of quality of care, the amendment provides HealthWatch England with powers to investigate complaints made by or on behalf of a patient or user of a local healthwatch organisation and to raise and investigate complaints relating to wider issues affecting patients or users in general.

The Government have said that they want to see HealthWatch England with genuine operational independence from CQC. However, attempts to do that by, for example, providing the majority membership of HealthWatch members on the HealthWatch board, or reassurances after the last debate in Committee in terms of HealthWatch England being able to speak out publicly in certain circumstances, even if their views conflict with its host body or government, miss the point. None of these small steps gives the unequivocal reassurance of independence that a robust patients' watchdog, acting in the interests of patients, must have. In the new market-dominated system that we will soon have, independence and a collective voice for patients is more vital than ever. In the end, it will come back to how the proposed measures will play out in practice and how conflicts of interest between HealthWatch England and the CQC, or indeed healthwatch organisations in the local authority, will be dealt with.

Most important of all is the issue of public perception, understanding and confidence in the independence of HealthWatch. It is important that HealthWatch is seen to be credible and truly independent, able to challenge and to scrutinise the work and decisions of the regulators, both CQC and Monitor. The niceties of whether there is a majority of HealthWatch members on the board, whether they can combine or exchange data and whether they are part of an organisation that the Secretary of State keeps under review will escape a patient, carer or representative who, for example, makes a complaint about how CQC has investigated care in a residential home, only to find that the body investigating the complaint or championing improved quality of care on behalf of patients is a committee of the CQC itself.

I hope that the noble Baroness will address these concerns: in particular, points that were repeatedly made about how the culture clash between healthwatch and the CQC will be addressed and managed; how we will stop CQC-in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Patel-"suffocating" HealthWatch England; how the potential serious conflict of interest will be dealt with; and how public faith, trust and confidence in healthwatch can be achieved under the relationship with the CQC, particularly in light of that body's major organisation and resource problems so starkly highlighted in the Department of Health's recent CQC performance and capability review.

In the debate on the duty of candour, the Minister referred to the CQC as an organisation that was remote from patients. We need an independent HealthWatch England and we need local healthwatch bodies that everyone can rely on to be genuine patient representatives. I am afraid that the Bill gives us neither.