Published:25/04/2002, Volume II2, No. 5802, Page 4

The government is taking a 'risk' by launching the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection while radically reforming the structure of the NHS, Sir Andrew Foster, director of the Audit Commission warned this week.

In an exclusive interview with HSJ, he also admitted 'slight disappointment' that his organisation is to lose its value-for-money work in the NHS. Though Sir Andrew welcomed the establishment of CHAI and pledged to work closely with the steering group that will set it up, he said the new body would face enormous challenges bringing together the wide range of responsibilities envisaged for it in Delivering the NHS Plan.

'The acid test is to what extent the new body can establish itself as independent and evidence based. At a time of significant change in the NHS itself, actually changing the regulatory systems brings in a risk.'

CHAI is expected to take over the Audit Commission's valuefor-money work, the work of the Commission for Health Improvement and licensing of independent hospitals from the National Care Standards Commission. Sir Andrew said:

'Rationalisation of regulation is something the commission has argued for forcibly. There are too many organisations and it doesn't make sense to either the public or people working in the service, who complain they do not know which body the next charabanc of inspectors will be arriving from.'

But he added: 'We are slightly disappointed that we are going to lose some of our work as we had hoped rationalisation might have involved us slightly more.'

The option favoured by the Audit Commission - and half the respondents to its consultation last year - was for more partnership between existing bodies. Sir Andrew said:

'This is the modern way.'

He was at pains to point out that the Audit Commission will keep the greater part of its NHS work in financial audit. Between 30 and 40 staff work on the value-for-money side and they will be encouraged to remain with the commission or seek jobs with CHAI. In the meantime, it was 'business as usual'. 'We will not be running down the business, ' said Sir Andrew. 'It will be between 18 months and two years before CHAI is established and we will need to have some financial audit of where the new money for the NHS has gone.' He said he would not be seeking the chief inspector's job at CHAI.

See news focus, page 14.