The foundation trust watchdog Monitor is facing calls to speak out on race equality instead of allowing finances to dominate its attentions.
The challenge was made at the inaugural national NHS black and minority ethnic network conference last Friday, where speakers also criticised the world class commissioning process for failing to adequately address race inequalities.
Birmingham and Solihull mental health foundation trust deputy chief executive Karen Martin said: “Monitor is seen to be the strongest regulator at the moment and yet at this stage its voice is quieter [on race equality] than on other issues.”
The regulator’s role in increasing opportunities for BME staff and improving the diversity of boards would gain importance as more trusts gained foundation status and appointed their own non executive directors and chairs, she said.
Regarding Monitor’s expectations of board members, Ms Martin said: “It does not talk about [race equality] issues, it talks about accountancy skills and the ability to lead audit committees… and that is one of the real missing links.”
A Monitor spokesman said foundation trusts are required to comply with statutory obligations, including those relating to racial discrimination and other employment matters.
Monitor did not expect to be involved in issues for which the Equality and Human Rights Commission had a remit, unless persistent failures indicated “fundamental governance failings” and authorisation breaches, he added.
But EHRC commissioner Joel Edwards admitted many felt his organisation needed to be firmer with the NHS and said the merging of predecessor bodies in 2007 had held it back.
He said: “We realise there has been a lull… and we are being slower than if we were in a well functioning outfit.”
The jury was “still out” on whether the commission should name trusts threatened with enforcement actions, he said.
Bristol primary care trust chief executive Deborah Evans also spoke at the conference, voicing concerns that race equality had not featured strongly in the world class commissioning assurance process.
She said: “Where were the BME assessors in those panels and where were the questions on race equality in those assessments?”
The comments coincide with fears that the issue will increasingly take a back seat due to the economic and political climate.
Managers in Partnership chief executive Jon Restell told delegates: “It is fair to test a potential Conservative government about its commitment to race equality and tackling health inequalities, given historic attitudes.
“The financial crisis would mean that managers must show a lot of courage if race equality is not to slide down the list of priorities.”