Local authorities have been urged to step up their scrutiny of NHS providers, as a survey revealed funding for such checks has dwindled.
The call for strengthening council probes of healthcare services came in new guidance by the Department of Health.
This suggested local health scrutiny committees should actively seek out information about service quality.
“Health scrutiny has a legitimate role in proactively seeking information about the performance of local health services and institutions in challenging the information provided to it… and in testing this information by drawing on different sources of intelligence,” it stated.
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The guidance added that health scrutiny must “consider ways of independently verifying information provided by relevant NHS bodies and relevant health service providers. For example, by seeking the views of local Healthwatch”.
The “primary aim” of health scrutiny should be to strengthen the voice of local people and ensure their experiences of healthcare are part of the process, it added.
Council checks were described as an “unreliable detector of concerns” in health services by Sir Robert Francis QC, following the public inquiry he led into care failings at Stafford Hospital.
He described Staffordshire County Council’s scrutiny committee as being “wholly ineffective”, and argued “scrutiny ought to involve more than the passive and unchallenging receipt of reports”.
The DH’s call to action came as an annual survey by the Centre for Public Scrutiny last week pointed to falling resources for council scrutiny committees, including a drop in the number of officers and budgets set aside.
It found dedicated scrutiny budgets had declined from £4,015 in 2013-14 to £3,447 in 2014-15 – the lowest level since 2004.
Katie Hall, chair of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Councils recognise that health scrutiny is vital in providing local accountability and challenge to the health system.
“The LGA and Centre for Public Scrutiny continue to work together to support councillors to ensure their health scrutiny function works closely with patient and public engagement organisations, and health and wellbeing boards to drive continuous improvement of local health services.”