“Is Anyone Listening?” That was the question that health campaigners asked MPs at the House of Commons on Monday 10th September, in a meeting coordinated by national campaign group 999 Call for the NHS and hosted by Dewsbury MP and Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Social Care, Paula Sherriff.
All over the country health campaigners are fighting against hospital in-patient bed reductions, cuts to services and closure of hospitals. Yet it appears that no-one cares about people’s suffering, just so long as budgets are met.
The people’s best bet for preventing harmful changes to our health services should be Council Scrutiny committees. They have the power – and the duty to use that power – to refer proposals for damaging changes to their area’s NHS back to the Secretary of State for Health and the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP).
But health campaigners say that the Scrutiny process rarely works effectively. The same problems and weaknesses occur across many different Councils’ Scrutiny committees – suggesting a systemic failure.
NHS campaign groups from the length and breadth of England took part in the meeting, along with twelve MPs from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
As a result, there is now a cross-country NHS campaigners’ lobby group with an action plan agreed with interested MPs, that aims to improve the Health Scrutiny process and the accountability of the Health Secretary and Independent Reconfiguration Panel, in relation to significant NHS cuts and changes referred to them by Health Scrutiny Committees.
We also invited the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, but none of them were able to attend. The Secretary did say that they would like to receive a report of the meeting, so we sent it to them. Their reply is downloadable here (.doc file).
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Campaigners gave MPs details of how difficult it is to get Scrutiny committees to refer to the Health Secretary and Independent Reconfiguration Panel. Even when they do it’s just not working: the Independent Reconfiguration Panel don’t always receive all the evidence they need; they don’t respond in a reasonable time and sometimes not at all; it has been known for the Department of Health not to tell the Independent Reconfiguration they have received a referral; the Independent Reconfiguration Panel refuse to visit the referring bodies and to talk to the people who are suffering. Services are cut. Hospitals are closed. People are ignored.
All the campaign groups spoke of their first-hand experience of Clinical Commissioning Group consultations on significant NHS cuts and changes, local authority scrutiny panels and referrals to the Department of Health and then the Independent Reconfiguration Panel.
Katie Scott from Save Rothbury Community Hospital told the meeting that the Rothbury ward has been closed for exactly two years and that the Department of Health has simply ‘sat’ on the advice given by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel.
She said that no one appears to be listening to the people of Coquetdale, who want the ward to be reopened.
“It is time that MPs, civil servants and government bodies started to listen to real spokespeople from communities, instead of having faith in what the money- and ideology-driven NHS and CCG management would have them believe.”
We heard from MPs that the best way of being heard is to be a nuisance to MPs representing health, and to address problems that affect the whole system. We should also plug away at our local MP.
Even amongst MPs the view of the NHS is that
“everyone is accountable but no one is responsible”.
The MPs present agreed to an action plan, which includes them asking that the Health Select Committee look at the work of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel: broaden its remit to look at the effects of austerity and lack of workforce planning. Why is there a shortage of staff? Why is there plenty of money for the wrong things and not enough for front-line services?
If the Independent Reconfiguration Panel has the power to act to prevent harmful changes to our health system then they need to listen to the people.
Cllr Netti Pearson from Save Our Hospital Services (Devon) said that the meeting went very well and it was good to hear the view from the MPs and to know that they think campaigners should keep on with what we are doing.
This was just a first step. We now have a cross-country lobby group and will meet again. If you are interested in finding out more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
We want nothing less than an NHS for everyone, with the same treatments available for everyone wherever they are in the country. We want our hospitals to be accessible. We want a publicly-provided service that is delivered according to clinical need not ability to pay.