The chief executive of Healthwatch England emailed the Care Quality Commission during a live tender, enquiring whether the regulator’s procurement process could be flexed to help local Healthwatch bidders, HSJ has learned.

The emails, obtained by HSJ under the Freedom of Information Act, raise the question of whether Healthwatch England attempted to use its position as a statutory committee of the CQC to influence its decision making.

Katherine Rake

Katherine Rake emailed the CQC on behalf of a local Healthwatch branch

Another bidder for the “experts by experience” procurement described the emails as “deeply troubling”.

In May the CQC launched a procurement to find organisations to recruit, train and manage “experts by experience” – inspectors with personal experience of health and social care services.

The process was “paused” in late June, with the CQC saying it needed to finalise the terms of the tender with the Department of Health.

The emails obtained by HSJ show that before this delay was announced, Katherine Rake, chief executive of Healthwatch England, emailed the CQC on behalf of a local branch.

The local Healthwatch, whose name is redacted in the documents, had emailed Ms Rake asking her to “influence [the CQC’s] thinking” in relation to the procurement.

The tender had a turnover requirement to pre-qualify, which the local Healthwatch felt unable to meet.

“We have not got time to put together a consortium bid so cannot meet the turnover requirement in that way, but feel strongly that it would be a great shame if the [Healthwatch] movement lost out on this opportunity because of this,” the email said.

It added: “I therefore wondered whether there was any way in which you could talk with the CQC to influence their thinking not to disbar smaller organisations such as ourselves from bidding?”

Ms Rake forwarded this email to the CQC.

She wrote that she had to “play a very straight bat… for obvious reasons” in relation to the local Healthwatch’s request, but asked the CQC whether there was “any flexibility on the pre-qualification process”.

Under the terms of the procurement all questions about the tender were supposed to be routed through an online portal so that all questions and answers were visible to all bidders.

After bidders had been notified that the procurement was to be delayed, Ms Rake contacted the CQC again, appearing to offer advice with how it could proceed with the tender. She wrote there had been “rumblings across the network” about the tender.

She also said: “I was wondering if you put the bid out again, whether it might be wise to reissue it as a new invitation to tender and we can then let the network know so that others can bid if they choose.”

The emails raise questions about Healthwatch England’s status as a statutory committee of the CQC.

A senior figure at another organisation that tendered for the experts by experience work, who wished to remain anonymous, said they had “bid in good faith” and found the emails “deeply troubling”.

A CQC spokesman said it had “paused the procurement process only to allow us time to be clear about the demand for experts by experience for our new inspection regime”.

“Healthwatch England had no influence on the decision to pause the process or any part of the process.

“The emails from Healthwatch England were received after the decision internally had been taken to pause the process.”

He added that the procurement process would be restarted once the CQC had board approval.

A Healthwatch England spokesman said they had “passed on a question about the experts by experience programme which had been raised with us by local Healthwatch”.

“We look forward to future discussions with the CQC on the way they plan to use the experts by experience in their inspections,” he added.