Local branches of the new “consumer champion” for health and social care will be left “bound and gagged” by government regulations restricting their campaigning activity, it has been claimed.
Created by the Health Act 2012, Healthwatch has been heralded by ministers as a new consumer champion for health and social care which will embed the voice of patients in the system.
Local branches will replace existing local involvement networks (LINks), many of which are transitioning into local Healthwatch. National umbrella body Healthwatch England will provide advice and support and collect intelligence from local Healthwatch.
However, a regulation to the Health Act, published before Christmas and due to be discussed by the House of Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee on Tuesday, appears to limit campaigning activity.
It states it would not be reasonable for local healthwatch to take part in the “promotion of, or opposition (including the promotion of changes) to, the policy which any governmental or public authority proposes to adopt in relation to any matter”.
The Department of Health says the regulation is designed to make sure local Healthwatch organisations do not become political.
However, the National Association of LINks Members claims this will prevent them from challenging policies of clinical commissioning groups and local authorities.
It believes the regulation would limit local Healthwatch in how well its branches represent local views in issues like the recent children’s heart surgery services consultation or plans for commissioning of specialised services.
Association chair Malcolm Alexander said the regulations placed “unreasonable limits on the freedom of the community to campaign for legislation and local policies that will improve the quality of care”.
He added: “The government appears fearful of a proactive public and is denying it the right to challenge effectively.”
A subsection of the regulations says local Healthwatch could take part in campaigns if it is “incidental” to other activity. However, NALM describe the distinction as “confusing” and say it will be incomprehensible to most people involved in Local Healthwatch with the effect that they will have to consult a lawyer before beginning any activity which could be viewed as campaigning.
A spokesman for the DH said: “The regulations aim to ensure that, in their role as a consumer champion, local Healthwatch’s activities are not influenced by political considerations, but are based on robust evidence.”
Healthwatch England declined to comment on the issue.