In all aspects of Government and public services, more decisions need to be taken by local people – for example on planning and policing. Where decisions cannot actually be taken by local people, it is important that public services are nevertheless held to account by the public for their use of taxpayers’ money.
In the case of the NHS, difficult decisions have to be taken about the range of services provided and arrangements for access by all members of the community. All local people have an interest in whether an A+E unit closes, and everyone wants to know that local hospitals are clean and safe.
This is why Labour is wrong to abolish patients’ forums – the local bodies which give patients a say about how the NHS is run – without putting something better in their place. Having met local patients’ forums, I know of the good work they do and also how concerned they are about Government plans.
New proposals for ‘local involvement networks’, or ‘LINks’, to replace forums, have drawn criticism from patients’ representatives and charities. I am not convinced that they will have the same powers to inspect the health service on behalf of patients, and may not be properly independent of county councils, who will be financing them.
That is why I recently led a debate in Parliament for the Conservatives urging Labour to think again. For one thing, forums were set up only four years ago, but now the hard work and dedication of volunteers looks set to be lost. I believe Ministers are simply trying to avoid being held to account for their mishandling of the NHS.
What we need is a powerful, national organisation which combines the existing functions of patients’ forums with those of a robust, consumer-style watchdog. Only then will the interests of patients be represented and their voices heard. But Labour has repeatedly refused to implement such a scheme.