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Local Healthwatch risks 'fractious disputes'

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The government risks making the same mistakes in setting up local Healthwatch groups that it made in setting up predecessor patient and public involvement organisations, the Francis report has warned.

Health reporting HSJ and LGC logo

Robert Francis QC described Staffordshire’s local involvement network (LINk) as an “unmitigated failure”, LGC’s sister title Health Service Journal reported.

The Stafford LINk, a subcommittee of the county-wide network, played no role in exposing poor care at the town’s hospital and “may have exacerbated the suffering of those who had cause for complaint” in its failure, the report said.

Mr Francis highlighted the lack of a prescribed structure for setting up LINks as a major factor in the groups’ descent into “fractious disputes” over governance issues.

Local Healthwatch branches, which will replace LINks in April, are also being set up with the freedom to design their own operating model.

Mr Francis says that “without such a framework there is a danger of repetition of the arguments which so debilitated Staffordshire LINk”.

Mr Francis also warned that the government’s refusal to ringfence money the Department of Health will hand to councils to commission local Healthwatch leaves them subject to the “vagaries of the health of local authority finances” and prejudices their independence.

“Whether justified or not, the fear that views inconsistent with a stance taken by the local authority could result in a reduction of funding will have a chilling effect on [local Healthwatch’s] approach to its functions,” he said.

Mr Francis also criticised the scrutiny committees at Staffordshire County council and Stafford Borough council, accusing them of a “conspicuous failure”.

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