The following is the summary of a paper written by Ursula Pearce in October 2014 on the way in which public consultation is currently being ‘managed’ by the NHS. A link to the full article can be found at the bottom of the piece.
The type of public engagement preferred by NHS organisations and the Cabinet Office is the involvement of individual patients or individual members of the public – in marginal decision making and on management terms. A more democratic approach seemed possible in 2013 when NHS England published guidance stating people should be directly involved in decisions about who should provide services. However, that guidance was soon altered. It now refers to patient representation on panels and their need for support and training, not consultation with the general public. Individual participants, as discussed, have no means of redress when their views are ignored. So engagement with them allows managers to operate unhindered while, paying lip service to public accountability and consultation. The NHS Constitution, meanwhile, gives individual patients or members of the public the right to claim judicial review if they are personally affected by an illegal or discriminatory decision. But recent moves by the government to limit the number of judicial reviews make it increasingly difficult for them to do so.
Opposing policies such as the above, where statutory rights are given by one hand and removed or weakened by the other, are now widespread. Local authorities or OSCs, the last remnants of democracy in the NHS, have the right to require NHS Foundation trusts, private sector providers and CCGs to provide them with information but they have no enforcement powers, outside the formal consultation process, or visiting rights to enable them to seek information for themselves. They have the right to be consulted on proposals for substantial changes but it is becoming more onerous for them to refer objections to the Secretary of State. Moreover, the duty on NHS organisations to consult with OSCs is shrinking. There is no formal requirement for commissioners to involve LAs/OSCs in deciding whether to classify services as commissioner requested services or not. Changes to or closures of services deemed ‘non-commissioner requested’ or ‘non–essential’, by definition, would not trigger a requirement for consultation even though such services may be valued or needed by patients. OSCs do not have a right to be consulted on Foundation Trust plans to increase private patient income or make significant transactions or mergers, acquisitions and separations or to form joint businesses with the private sector, all of which could pose a significant risk to local services. Foundation Trust governors, alone have the power to approve them. Yet OSCs are far better placed than FT governors to assess the implications of such decisions for the wider health economy. The duty to consult LAs or OSCs does not apply when Trusts go bankrupt and are taken into special administration. The amendment to clause 118 of the Care Bill was rightly viewed as a triumph by campaigners. It requires administrators to consult with every CCG likely to be affected by their recommendations, not just the CCGs attached to the failing trust, and provides some scope for public consultation. However, the amendment leaves a basic loophole intact, namely, when administrators and CCGs cannot agree, NHS England, not the CCGs or public opinion, has the final say.
Local Healthwatch organisations – the official ‘consumer champions’ – are constrained similarly. Healthwatch members have the sole right to visit and inspect health service premises on behalf of local residents. They can report their findings to Healthwatch England and NHS organisations but are forbidden by law to use the information to oppose government policies or engage in policy work. They may campaign if they have enough evidence but only if it is kept as a minor activity. Equally odd, is the Secretary of State’s refusal to provide Healthwatch members with the right to information or the right to attend CCG board meetings as observers. Healthwatch members have a duty to provide the public with information and help patients exercise choice. Yet they may have to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain official information for themselves. Another key role for Healthwatch organisations is to gather the views and experiences of patients and feed these back to Healthwatch England, the Local Authority, OSCs and NHS organisations. Yet Healthwatch members cannot make use of their own knowledge in public consultations as they do not have a statutory right to be consulted. Instead, Healthwatch committees have been subsumed into the planning process by virtue of their single seat on Health and Wellbeing Boards. In practice, far from being ‘consumer champions’, Healthwatch organisations are the equivalent of a government smoke screen, engaging the public in a minor way, while fundamental changes to the NHS, including privatisation and its consequences, remain hidden from view.
A prerequisite for accountability to operate is a free flow of information to ensure citizens have the knowledge to scrutinise and challenge the decisions and acts of those in power (Ref 4). However, under the Freedom of Information Act, information can be withheld on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Contracts between NHS bodies and commercial firms are shrouded in secrecy. As a result, consultation documents are bereft of essential information, so that consultees cannot make an informed response even if they wish to.
Moreover, contracts with private firms leave patients with less information to choose where to be treated. This irony and the fact many patients may be too ill to choose fosters not only spurious competition but health inequalities, as shown in the recent Labour Party Parliamentary health committee review. An absurdity at the heart of government policy is the ideological belief that privatisation and competition promote choice, improve services and reduce health inequalities.
Ominously, profit hungry commissioning support firms are coming together in groups to bid for lucrative NHS contracts. One shadowy commissioning support group, chaired by United Health, the giant US health insurer, is currently lobbying NHS England strongly for a contract worth £1 billion, even to the extent of taking NHS officials on a fact finding trip to the US. When so much tax payers money is at stake, it is, perhaps, not surprising that CCGs are taking major decisions in closed sessions and disengaging from local accountability mechanisms, as reported by Healthwatch organisations. The decision of the Secretary of State to refuse Healthwatch representatives an observer seat on CCG committees reinforces the view that deals with private firms are being struck in secret. The prescient words of historian Charles Webster spring to mind “local communities and their representatives are likely to count for little when it comes to appeasing corporate interests” (Guardian May 8th 2002).
There may still be time to save the NHS and restore democractic accountability. People of all political persuasions, in England, as well as Scotland, support the health service and do not want it handed over to profit driven private firms. And irrespective of how hard the government works behind the scenes to curtail statutory rights, it cannot remove the power of the public to vote politicians out of office at the ballot box. That power, above all, explains the politicians fear of exposure, their drive to hide information and to privatise by stealth. Thanks to the persistence and direct action of campaigners, however, news of NHS privatisation is getting out, hopefully in time to influence public opinion and galvanise grassroots support before the general election in 2015. Effective grassroots campaigners have shown they have the power to jolt and influence politicians out of their complacency. The survival of the NHS rests in their hands.