Published: 06/02/2003, Volume II3, No. 5841 Page 7

Junior health minister Lord Hunt came under fire from opposition peers last week as the abolition date for community health councils was finally announced.

CHCs have been under threat since their abolition was announced in the NHS plan in June 2000. But a Department of Health announcement that CHCs would be abolished on 1 September provoked fury as it became clear that new patients' forums will not all be in place by then.

In response to questioning by Conservative health spokesman Earl Howe, Lord Hunt said 'the intention' of the Committee for Patient and Public Involvement in Health was 'to have patients' forums in place as soon as possible from 1 September'.

But Earl Howe challenged him:

'Does the minister recall that during the committee stage of the NHS Reform and Healthcare Professionals Bill last April he gave an explicit assurance that CHCs would not be abolished until patients' forums were in place and that no gaps would be left in the system?'

Lord Hunt replied: 'It was certainly the intention to ensure CHCs remained in place and that there would be a smooth transition programme...It is becoming clear that many CHCs are facing problems in terms of losing both their staff and membership.' It was better to give 'a clear date' for winding up CHCs.

Association of CHCs for England and Wales director Malcolm Alexander said: 'A gap between the end of CHCs and the establishment of the new system means no effective patient representation or scrutiny within the NHS for six months, no clear source of support for current complainants or those that come along in the six-month period and no effective handover from CHCs.'

ACHCEW is also concerned that the commission's plans to have nine regional offices and 'formal partnerships with local networks to support patients' forums'which might be 'with a consortia of voluntary sector bodies, or other local groups' did not give an adequate role for patient advocacy at primary care trust-level.

Mr Alexander said it was difficult to see how the proposed method of establishing the patient forums would square with the legislative commitments that local commission staff would be accountable to - and their work overseen by - lay members of the PCT patients forums.

But CPPIH chair Sharon Grant, who took up office in January, told HSJ: 'I do not think it was ever envisaged that staff would be at PCT level. People might have assumed that, but It is never been put to me since I've been involved.

'A lot of the previous discussion was that it would be at strategic health authority level so there would be 28 of those [local bodies]. This will be better - there will be 150 at a local level.'

Ms Grant confirmed that although 'local networks'would be 'up and running' by September, 'patient forums in the vast majority of cases will be established by the end of the year'. But she was still in negotiations with the DoH over funding.