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Councillors must be better educated about health issues, but the NHS must be more open, if local government's scrut...
Councillors must be better educated about health issues, but the NHS must be more open, if local government's scrutiny of the health service is to succeed.

The advice comes in an Audit Commission report, A healthy outlook. The scrutiny role for councils is unpopular with the rapidly reforming health service, which has never had to be democratically accountable at a local level before.

The report quotes health service staff who are sceptical about councils' capacity to scrutinise the NHS.

One said: 'Local authority members don't understand the pressures in the NHS. They will interfere and oversimplify.'

Local government staff also had fears. One said: 'Scrutiny committees don't have the skills or the resources. We can't scrutinise ourselves yet, let alone the NHS.'

Another comment was: 'There are a number of members who can't wait to get stuck into the health service. They'll wreck our partnership work.'

The report warns the role is a difficult challenge for councils, especially where they are new to scrutiny or have 'poor relationships with local NHS bodies'.

It advises members to:

- Develop new skills

- Take an active, investigative role

- Engage constructively with other outside agencies

- Develop an understanding of issues affecting the local health 'economy'

- Consult with local people and reflect their views.

The health service, on the other hand, must 'take a more positive approach to scrutiny, accepting its legitimacy and being willing to discuss issues in terms accessible to the lay person'.

Audit Commission controller Sir Andrew Foster said: 'Councils should be properly prepared for their new role, and NHS bodies should be receptive to it.'

However, councillors should not become health experts as this would prevent them speaking for the non-expert population, said report author Helen Oxtoby.

Councillors are in an excellent position to widen health issues, Ms Oxtoby added: 'Councillors are in a position to look across health improvement, at transport, housing, the environment.'

- For copies of A healthy outlook call 0800 502 030.

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