Healthwatch England will not be a “megaphone” for local interest groups, the body’s chair has told HSJ in her first interview since taking up the post.

Anna Bradley, a former chief executive of the National Consumer Council, said she was looking to Citizens Advice as a model for Healthwatch’s support for patients.

In addition to the national body, which has been constituted as a committee of the Care Quality Commission, every English local authority will be responsible for commissioning a local Healthwatch service in its area.

Ms Bradley said Healthwatch would be a network rather than Healthwatch England being a representative body for local groups. Asked about the reconfiguration of services, Ms Bradley said Healthwatch England would not participate in campaigns on individual issues.

‘If you’re going to build trust with people you shouldn’t be trying to catch them out’

However, Healthwatch England may offer local Healthwatch branches advice on getting their voice heard by taking a “robust, evidence based approach” and highlight the need for branches to be included in discussions about reconfiguration.

“Healthwatch England is not just a megaphone for local Healthwatch. If there are issues for a local Healthwatch about reconfiguration, that’s really for them to address at the local level,” she said.

Local Healthwatches will replace local involvement networks (LINks) as a forum for patient and public involvement from April 2013. The National Association of LINks Members has opposed elements of the plans for Healthwatch, including the lack of a ringfence for funding provided to councils and Healthwatch England’s perceived lack of independence due to its relationship with the CQC.

Ms Bradley sees the body’s position in the CQC, on whose board she will sit, as beneficial and describes funding as a “political issue” that is “way above” her pay grade.

She also said the 12-member Healthwatch England committee would not be a representative body, rejecting calls from the National Association of LINks members for them to be elected.

Ms Bradley said she was attracted to the post for its “potential for change” at a time when there was a “real emphasis on putting patients at centre of the system”. She stepped down from a number of non-executive roles, including at Colchester Hospital University Foundation Trust, to take up the post.

If Healthwatch England has concerns about a particular national issue it can ask the relevant organisation, such as the CQC or the NHS Commissioning Board, to take action. If the organisation declines it will have to put on the public record its reason for doing so.

Ms Bradley describes this as Healthwatch England’s “power” but said it plans to operate on a “no surprises” basis.

“That doesn’t stop me saying what I’m going to say but if you’re going to build trust and confidence with people you shouldn’t be in the business of trying to catch them out. We want to persuade them, that’s the point, and get them to change what they’re doing.”

Ms Bradley plans to identify about four priorities for Healthwatch England to concentrate on once the committee is established in shadow form later this year. This decision will be informed by a review of LINks’ annual plans examining what the biggest areas of concern have been.

Unlike its predecessors at a national level, Healthwatch covers both health and social care.

Ms Bradley said: “I don’t believe in banging one’s head against a brick wall; we need to be selective about the things where we can really make a difference. If other people are already making a difference we don’t need to wade in there.

“There are very clearly some big issues in social care and I suspect that some of the issues that are really important to people lie exactly in the interface between health and social care.

“Being able to talk about social care as well as healthcare is a new thing so we have the possibility of dealing with the whole person in that respect.”