HL Deb 18 May 2004 vol 661 cc640-2

2.45 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the progress and performance of patients' forums.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, we are satisfied generally with the progress made. Since their establishment at the end of 2003, patients' forums have been building relationships with key local stakeholders. Many forums have undertaken specific reviews of local health services and are now contributing patients' views to local decisions.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, many, both inside and outside the National Health Service, will be surprised at the Minister's satisfaction. It is already clear that patients' forums lack members, openness about their membership, resources, facilities, infrastructure and, above all, experience. They are currently completely unable to do the job that they are supposed to do, which is to scrutinise the National Health Service. That already bears out the fears of many of us when the Government chose to abolish community health councils. Is it not now time, before things go much further, for the Government to institute an independent evaluation of patients' forums to ensure that they can carry out the jobs that they are supposed to do?

Lord Warner

My Lords, about 5,000 people have been recruited to serve on patients' forums. My information is that all patients' forums have their minimum number of members, which is seven. The Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health recruits forum support organisations, with 68 of them involved providing support to forums themselves. It is on the public record that about 25 per cent of the members of forums are former members of CHCs.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is it not a fact that, although, as the Minister says, patients' forums may have members, there has been little choice of people to serve on them? That means that they are not really representative of their communities. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that the general public understands the purpose of both patients' forums and the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health? With the community health councils people knew where to go; they had become a well established, well known name. The Government have a passion for name changes and no one now knows where to go if they have a National Health Service complaint. What will the Government do to educate the public more widely on the matter?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the noble Baroness is a little unkind to us. The commission is responsible for putting the system in place. The Act that provided for that was passed by this House and the other place. As I said, forum support organisations are supporting patients' forums. They are under a contract that expires next year and their performance is being monitored. On my visits to hospitals, I have seen patients' forums clearly identified and prominently housed in many of our hospitals. We need to give the system time to run at local level to ensure that it is the success that we all want.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that patients' forums are reaching out to the most vulnerable people in the communities that they serve?

Lord Warner

My Lords, as I understand it, the point of the commission appointing patients' forum support organisations was that they comprised people who were in contact with local networks and could provide linkages between the forums and those networks. My information is that there is a good gender balance, about 10 per cent of forum members are from ethnic minorities and a very large proportion are people with a disability.

Earl Howe

My Lords, has the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health decided to cap the number of members per patients' forum at 10? If so, where did the idea come from and do the Government approve of it?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am unaware that the commission has capped the number at 10, but as Parliament decided in the legislation to make the commission independent, the Government have respected its independence. The commission is responsible for monitoring the performance of the forum support organisations and patients' forums.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the very point of independence is apposite, because it was the parties opposite who argued during the passage of the Bill in this House that the commission should be independent? Is he puzzled that at the first sign of the commission taking action, noble Lords opposite now wish the Minister to intervene?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I have learnt to handle the ambiguities that are sometimes expressed in this House.