Foundation trusts should be given the political backing for widespread joint ventures, mergers, 'acquisitions' with other trusts, the Foundation Trust Network has urged the prime minister.

Foundation trusts should be given the political backing for widespread joint ventures, mergers, 'acquisitions' with other trusts, the Foundation Trust Network urged the prime minister on Monday.

In a meeting at Downing Street, FTN director Sue Slipman urged Tony Blair to treat foundation trusts as 'the engine for change' in the NHS by leading on the development of non-foundations.

She said that where foundation trusts had reached 'a critical mass' in a health economy they should be free to 'team up' with 'other trusts that are failing or do not yet have the opportunity to become autonomous bodies' to drive cultural change.

Ms Slipman said what constituted 'critical mass' would vary, but in areas with the biggest problems, you would need 'a bigger, stronger foundation presence [so that] you might look at reconfiguration of services and assets.'

She said Heart of England foundation trust?s franchise management of the struggling Good Hope trust 'provided a model for the ways the foundation trust sector can support the rest of the NHS, but it is only one model'.

Foundation trusts had the ability to take on the role, but 'needed a consistent message about cultural change from the Department of Health and other players,? she said. And Ms Slipman also called for 'more enthusiasm, a greater push behind the programme and recognition that achieving critical mass is vital'.

The FTN repeated its earlier calls for its members to be freed of 'overburdensome regulation' in the form of the Healthcare Commission?s developmental standards. Ms Slipman said: 'We think there should be no direct role for the commission ? they could publish outcomes.' She told the prime minister that standards were best set locally 'by members, governors and commissioners rather than top down'.

She made her comments as the DoH announced that it would assess 16 applicants for foundation status this month. If successful the new applicant group, which includes five mental health trusts, will then be passed to Monitor for assessment at the end of July, and awarded foundation trust status in December. There are currently 40 foundation trusts, plus 13 being assessed by Monitor for authorisation in August.

In a statement to HSJ, Mr Blair said the success of foundation trusts showed 'no-one can now believe' claims made when legislation to create them was debated that they 'would mean the end of the NHS'.

And he said that as the number of foundation trusts increased 'we need to move on to the next phase by helping them to develop,' adding: 'In particular we need to look at ways foundation trusts can work with other NHS services to improve the quality and quantity of patient care, so all NHS services are brought up to the standards of the very best.'