The chief executive of Healthwatch England has admitted some local branches are not yet established but said it will help resolve problems as “quickly as possible”, in an interview with HSJ.
Katherine Rake’s comments follow reports that some local Healthwatch organisations have not been set up, or are not running properly. They were meant to begin operation at the beginning of April but at least nine local authorities had only in recent weeks awarded contracts for organisations to run them.
Healthwatch England acts as an umbrella body for the local Healthwatch branches. Ms Rake told HSJ that, while there would be organisations which “take a little bit more time to set up”, many were well established, including 75 which were set up by the government as “pathfinders”.
She added: “One of the things we’re keeping very live to is if there are real problems, making sure they get resolved as quickly as possible. At this stage there is a lot more worry than we have concrete evidence of problems.”
Healthwatch England’s most recent information suggests 86 per cent of contracts to run local Healthwatch have been awarded to voluntary organisations such as the Carers Federation and Voluntary Action. Around 21 host organisations are the same as those which ran predecessor local involvement network organisations (LINks).
Healthwatch England believes about two thirds are due to be run by dedicated social enterprises, and a quarter are seeking charitable status.
Ms Rake said she believed building on existing capacity of voluntary organisations was the best approach and would give the new organisations credibility in their communities.
Healthwatch England published its priorities at the end of last month. They include ensuring its own processes, and local Healthwatch, are working well.
Its other two priorities are based on what it viewed as the most relevant points of the United Nations Guidance for Consumer Protection, an internationally recognised publication. They are the right to be heard and the right to redress.
It plans to look at how health and social care organisations engage patients, and review the complaints system for vulnerable people who do not have others to advocate for them.
Ms Rake defended Healthwatch England’s use of the word “consumer” in describing its role. She told HSJ: “Whilst we’re aware that some people don’t like the term, actually it shifts the territory from being grateful for what you’re given, to saying, ‘I’ve got some rights and entitlements in this system.’”
Meanwhile, health secretary Jeremy Hunt last week acknowledged he was aware a lack of funding for local Healthwatch was a problem in “some parts of the country”.
His comments come in the wake of concerns about the lack of a ringfence around local authorities’ funding for LHW, and that some may not pass on enough resources.
Mr Hunt was speaking at the launch of the Healthwatch Network, of which all local organisations will be members, this week.
The government has faced criticism from patient groups for a number of decisions in relation to the creation of Healthwatch.
Concerns include the fact that Healthwatch England is constituted as a sub-committee of the Care Quality Commission – potentially undermining its independence; failure to ringfence funding; and appearing to attempt to restrict campaigning activity through secondary legislation governing how local Healthwatch braches operate.
The government argued its regulations were only intended to prevent party political campaigning, but HWE has agreed the wording is unclear and is producing further guidance for local groups. It has also committed to monitoring how local authorities use the cash given to them for LHW.
In his report into Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust, Robert Francis QC criticised the government for the lack of a “prescribed structure” for LHW which he warned could see organisations wasting time on their constitution, as had happened in the case of Stafford LINk.
In response to Francis and demand from the local organisations, HWE is producing quality standards to “promote consistency”.