Health watchdogs abolished

NHS Community Health Councils - which helped lead to the conviction of the serial killer Harold Shipman and rogue gynaecologist Rodney Ledward - are to be axed.

New guidelines in the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill, which passed through Parliament last week, will see the network of independent health watchdogs terminated by next March.

Community Health Councils (CHCs) were established in 1974 as ‘patient advocates’ within the NHS. Collectively, they assist with some 30,000 complaints against NHS services each year.

Patients' representative bodies have successfully lobbied the Government since it announced plans to dissolve the CHC system altogether, leading to substantial concessions to its original proposal.

Peter Walsh, Director of the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales, said: “There is widespread agreement that CHCs should have been reformed instead of abolished but there is great relief at the ending of almost two years of uncertainty.

"Crucially we now need to ensure we find a way of retaining the skills and experience of CHC staff and members in the new system.”

However, a spokesman for the Association said there was uncertainty surrounding a replacement scheme: "Most likely we'll be transferred into a Primary Care Trust Patient Forum which will become a 'super forum' encompassing all areas of care, including mental health. It will have its own staff.

"It's all very uncertain still. As for a complete transition by next year, it's doubtful everything will be ready in time so CHCs may have to continue for longer than the government plans for them to at present. Patients' groups largely agree with us that the system should have been reformed rather than abolished."

Paul Mitchell, a Chief CHC Officer, said: “To say we were very surprised when the Government first announced it wanted to abolish CHCs is an understatement; we were expecting a reform at the very most. It's been a very uncertain two years for staff, some of whom became disillusioned and left because of the uncertainty.

"It is going to be a very difficult job to replace some of these people and a serious challenge to make the transition to a new system that improves upon the one we previously had."

But he added: “We now have to take the Government at its word when it says this is going to be an improvement and not a step backwards.”