The Department of Health has confirmed clinical senates – proposed new networks of clinicians – will not “interfere with or constrain clinical commissioning groups”.

However a letter published today also says the groups may have a role in authorising and formally assessing CCGs.

NHS East Midlands medical director Kathy McLean, who has been asked by the DH to develop proposals for senates, says in the letter the groups “will not be new statutory bodies or formal organisations”.

She says: “They are not intended to be another layer of bureaucracy or be a structure to ‘interfere’ with or constrain clinical commissioning groups. Senates may provide part of the way for clinical commissioning groups to meet their proposed statutory duty to secure advice from a wide range of health professionals, but they will not have a right of veto for plans or proposals…

“The number of clinical senates (likely to be in the order of 15), who will be part of them and their specific roles are all yet to be determined, and I am keen to engage as widely as possible to develop proposals for the operation of clinical senates.

“The government’s response to the Future Forum report suggested, for example, that clinical senates could provide advice on the clinical aspects of commissioners’ proposals for large scale service change or reconfiguration… Additionally, they could also have a role in the quality aspects of authorisation or annual assessment of clinical commissioning groups.”

Senates were proposed in response to concerns about fragmentation of planning and services, and a lack of involvement of professionals other than GPs in commissioning.

In its response to the Future Forum review of its reforms in June, the government said it would “expect” clinical commissioning groups to “follow their advice”.  It said: “Clinical senates will have a formal role in the authorisation of clinical commissioning groups. In addition they will have a key role in advising the NHS Commissioning Board on whether commissioning plans are clinically robust and on major service changes.”

Since then, GP commissioners have argued they should not have to follow senates’ advice.

Dr Mclean’s letter also distinguishes senates from clinical networks which are generally condition specific and have a different function. She is leading a review of their “range, function and effectiveness”, alongside work on senates.