Health minster Earl Howe has revealed the government’s proposed health and wellbeing boards will not be compulsory.

In the supporting document to the white paper, Local Democratic Legitimacy in Health, the government set out its preference for a “statutory role, within each upper tier local authority” which would “allow more effective engagement” between NHS commissioners and local government.

The document said health and wellbeing boards would lead local joint needs assessments, promote joined-up commissioning plans across the NHS, social care and public health, and scrutinise major service redesign.

The policy has been described as a “sop” to the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to introduce directly elected health boards in a bid to join up thinking around public health.

Consultation on the document closed last month.

Speaking to HSJ following an appearance before the all party parliamentary group on primary care and public health, Earl Howe said:  “We are not going to be prescribing to local authorities exactly what they should do.

“We are suggesting that a health and wellbeing board would comprise various elements, including patients and the public. How the local authority does that is up to them.”

Asked if the boards would be compulsory, he said: “No they won’t.

“It’s a phrase we are using to describe what we want to see. But the functions will be statutory and they are the important things.”

Earlier he revealed plans to subsume councils’ existing overview and scrutiny committees into health and wellbeing boards were also being reconsidered.

He said: “We have had a request for us to reconsider that and the overview and scrutiny committees to remain alongside health and wellbeing boards. It’s right that we examine that.”

Liberal Democrat Sandra Gidley, who sat on the health committee for most of the past decade until losing her seat at the election, claimed the policy was being watered down.

She said: “I think it was a sop to the Lib Dem idea. The good thing about it, if it worked, was that it would have enabled councils to put public health at the centre of their thinking.

“It’s been watered down from Lib Dem policy to the white paper and this signifies that it’s been watered down even more. It’s disappointing.”