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Health: Local Healthwatch Funding

Volume 753: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report from Healthwatch England that £10 million of the £43.5 million allocated for local Healthwatch in 2013–14 has not been used for its intended purpose.

The Government have made no assessment. We welcome transparency in funding for local Healthwatch—something we called for in response to the Francis inquiry report—and Healthwatch England’s findings are a helpful contribution to that. We remain of the view that local authorities are best placed to decide local funding arrangements based on local needs and priorities, which is why the funding made available to them is not ring-fenced for a specific purpose.

So the noble Earl is telling the House that £10 million—almost a quarter of the money that his department allocated for local Healthwatch—has disappeared midway through the Department for Communities and Local Government to local government and not reached local Healthwatch. Was that not predictable and predicted? Why do the Government not now recognise that providing a local voice for the users of the health service is critical to the development of the health service and ensure that the funds are channelled through Healthwatch England for it to commission local services? If they cannot do that because it would require legislation, perhaps the Government could publish an indicative statement of what each local authority ought to be spending on local Healthwatch.

My Lords, I would say that it is not the role of the Government to dictate what local authorities should be doing. It is up to local authorities to make judgments about what are the needs and priorities of their areas. I would also say that there cannot really be any direct comparison between the money made available by central government and the funding provided to local Healthwatch. It is not the case that £10 million has somehow disappeared. It is, rather, that councils have made local funding decisions which mean that £33.5 million was invested in local Healthwatch last year. What matters here is the transparency. That is what we very much welcome. It enables local Healthwatch to hold local authorities to account for their funding decisions and thereby, perhaps, influence them to give them a bit more money if that is required.

My Lords, in the light of the Minister’s response, what assessment have the Government made of the extent to which local authorities are meeting those needs?

My Lords, we will not have a comprehensive picture of the impact that local Healthwatch has made until it publishes its annual reports later in the year. At the moment, we have anecdotal reports of some considerable successes around the country, but until we have those annual reports, it would be premature for me to make a general comment.

My Lords, it is surely disingenuous to think that local Healthwatch can properly represent the interests of patients—the Government made very strong commitments about that during the passage of recent health Bills—when it is being starved of cash. What discussions have been taking place between the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the money gets to the right place?

I simply say to the noble Baroness that it is too soon to say whether local Healthwatch has been starved of cash. What matters most to local communities is the difference that their local Healthwatch is making, such as rooting out poor practice, ensuring that the views of local communities are heard in inspections and helping to improve local services. It is only after a period of time that we can make the relevant judgments. I can tell the noble Baroness that Healthwatch England is playing the role that it was designed to do: overseeing and supporting local Healthwatch where necessary.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that this is an example of where money should be ring-fenced? The people who work for Healthwatch are volunteers. They should not be out of pocket and they need their expenses for travel.

I agree with the noble Baroness that, in the normal course of events, expenses should be reimbursed, but I say again that it is not the role of Ministers to second-guess the judgments of local authorities. We believe in local autonomy. There are plenty of other ways in which many local authorities are supporting voluntary groups in their areas apart from Healthwatch, and making a difference in that way.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my health interests. I can hardly believe what I am hearing. Of course I understand why the noble Earl’s department does not want to tell local authorities what to do, but surely this is a question of upholding propriety in the use of public money. His department allocated more than £43 million to the DCLG to distribute to local authorities for Healthwatch. Somewhere along the line, either in the DCLG or in local authorities, someone has nicked £10 million. Does the department not want its money back?

I do not believe that anybody has nicked £10 million, my Lords. The issue here is the one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and others: the absence of ring-fencing should not be seen as something negative. It has enabled councils to take a strategic approach to allocating their resources, in line with local needs and priorities. It has given them freedom to deploy their resources across the piece to achieve value for money. It is now, as I said earlier, up to local communities, but also local Healthwatch itself, to hold their local authority to account and thereby to demonstrate the impact that they are having, and make the case for more money if they feel that they merit it.

My Lords, the Minister said that this was about transparency, which of course it is. However, is it not also about consistency? There must be regions, boroughs or councils that are not using the money that has been allocated, which is surely to the detriment of the local community and to patients there. Surely we need to know where that money is not being spent and where patients and users of the health service are being sold short.

We do need to know if people are being sold short. I would say to my noble friend that that is one of the reasons why local Healthwatch has a seat at the table of the health and well-being board, where it is eminently able to make its voice heard if it feels that it does not have sufficient resources to do the job which local authorities are legally obliged to commission.

My Lords, can we therefore have an assurance from the Minister that if local authorities do not spend all the money allocated on Healthwatch, they will not find their funding for Healthwatch proportionately reduced next year?

I can give that assurance. We have allocated a fixed sum of £43.5 million for next year, and that will be paid.