NHS complaints procedures are 'not seen as impartial' and 'haphazard training' leaves some review panel convenors to 'make up the rules as they go along', a Commons select committee heard last week.

The Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales told the select committee on public administration that the public did not see non-executive directors as impartial when they acted as convenors on independent review panels.

At evidence sessions on the annual report of the health service commissioner, ACHCEW called for a 'genuinely independent panel' to take on complaints not resolved at a local level.

But ACHCEW chair Joyce Struthers was reluctant for CHCs to take on the burden. She told the committee: 'I don't want to commit my organisation to anything like that. We wouldn't have the expertise or resources to properly monitor complaints.'

Ms Struthers suggested that CHCs could provide a 'gateway into the complaints procedure'.

Research and information officer Gary Fereday said the 'haphazard training' referred to by Ms Struthers meant some 'well-meaning' convenors were stepping outside their role and attempting to resolve problems themselves.

But ACHCEW described new procedures as 'an improvement on what went before'.

Select committee chair Rhodri Morgan asked both ACHCEW and representatives from the Patients Association what they would have done had they been alerted to the Bristol tragedy at an early stage.

Ms Struthers said she assumed 'the local CHC would have made a noise about it', but acknowledged that CHCs had limited powers to uncover failings in region-wide specialities.

Patients Association vice-chair Vanessa Bourne similarly offered little more than a promise to 'look more carefully' at future cases reported to the charity's helpline.

She said she could not understand why no one affected by the Bristol babies tragedy had alerted the phoneline at the time.

The association also gave evidence suggesting that fear of being struck off a GP's list deterred many patients from lodging an official complaint.

But attempts to quantify the extent of the problem met only anecdotal evidence, with Patients Association council member Pauline Molony finally concluding that the problem was 'fairly widespread'.