My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I want to express our concern and exasperation at these cobbled-together last-minute changes to the status and organisational arrangements for local healthwatch. We are utterly opposed to depriving local healthwatch of its statutory status. It is hard to see the logic behind the new approach, even for those of us who are supportive of the local development of social enterprises.
The noble Baroness has not explained why this last-minute change is taking place 14 months into the consideration of the Bill. Why was this new approach and dramatic change not spelt out and included in the consultation that the Government have conducted since Committee stage on HealthWatch membership? Why such a fundamental change of direction at this late stage?
The Government's argument is that the new arrangements will provide local authorities with the flexibility that they need in establishing HealthWatch organisations and facilitating their networking with other local community organisations. In practice, this means that not only will each local healthwatch be very different, and it will take more than the proposed national kite mark to provide them with any joined-up coherence, but they will all develop at a very different pace as local authorities take time to decide on the form of structure, and then draw up and implement their commissioning arrangements, or further subcontracting arrangements, if they want to make things really confusing, and so on. This is hardly the smooth transition from LINks organisations to the proper and coherent structure of patient representation at local level that we need. Like so much in this Bill, what could be simple and straightforward is made fragmented and complicated and requires detailed explanation. The Government also make strong play of local healthwatch organisations having a statutory function through a seat on health and well-being boards, through making a contribution on that board and the statutory joint strategic needs assessments and the joint health and well-being strategy. HealthWatch will also have statutory status through the statutory health and well-being boards' ability to refer back to the NHS Commissioning Board plans that do not meet the needs of the local communities. So we have a second-hand, reflected statutory authority by participating in bodies that have statutory status.
It is interesting, too, that with clinical commissioning groups the Government have repeatedly argued that the Bill was needed to enable CCGs to be statutory bodies in their own right. Now we see exactly the opposite argument when it comes to patient representation.
Finally, there is the relationship of local healthwatch with the local authority, where there is again huge potential for conflict of interest, and concern that even the well intentioned authorities facing severe budget cuts could struggle to find the required funding for healthwatch organisations. Government amendments to address this and potential conflicts of interest by requiring local authorities to,
"have regard to ... any Secretary of State guidance on this matter", do not provide the safeguards that would be needed to ensure that patients, their carers or representatives should be able to expect if they are concerned that their complaint about a social services department is channelled through a non-statutory body funded and linked to the local authority itself.
As with the rest of the Bill, these are complicated structures understood and supported by no one, with details fleshed out at the last minute and sprung upon the House, in effect, only three working days before we are due to consider them, and with no opportunity for consultation on such fundamental change. Arguably most important of all is that it is impossible to see, among all these amendments, how these local organisations will relate to national HealthWatch. Perhaps the kite marks are designed more to help HealthWatch England recognise who it has under its umbrellas than to assist local organisations networking with each other.
I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will acknowledge the concern, confusion and demoralisation, particularly among key patient organisations and groups, at the last-minute decision to change the status of local healthwatch organisations. I hope that she will agree to withdraw these amendments and instead restore statutory status to local healthwatch, enabling them to be organisations that everyone can rely on to be genuine patient representatives, fully trusted and supported by patients and the public.