Councillors criticise Government change which removes some powers from health committees

Nottinghamshire County Council
By Anna Whittaker, Local Democracy Reporter

Nottinghamshire councillors have criticised a move by the Government which reduces the power of local health committees to make urgent changes or improvements to local services.

The Secretary of State for Health’s new powers came into effect in January 2024.

Since 2013, health scrutiny committees, which are part of local councils, have been able to refer issues of concern to the Secretary of State for Health for their consideration.

Now, the committees will no longer have the right to make direct referrals to the  Secretary of State in this way. The committee can still summon healthcare bodies to attend a meeting.

Council documents state the Secretary of State would “only intervene as a last resort”.

Cllr Michelle Welsh (Lab) said at a county council health scrutiny committee meeting on February 20 that these powers were used to raise concerns over the Nottingham maternity scandal.

There have been dozens of baby deaths and injuries at Nottingham University Hospitals, which runs Queen’s Medical Centre and City Hospital in Nottingham.

Former chair of the health scrutiny committee Cllr Sue Saddington (Con) used the powers to contact the Health Secretary Sajid Javid about the Nottingham maternity crisis in November 2021.

She wrote in a letter that she backed a public inquiry and added that it was time to make way for new leadership at the trust.

Cllr Saddington later met Mr Javid to outline the concerns.

Bereaved and harmed families also met with Mr Javid.

In May 2022 Donna Ockenden was appointed to lead a review into maternity services at the trust.

Cllr Welsh said she was “dissatisfied” and “fundamentally against” the changes.

She said: “There were a lot of people who knew about the maternity issues and it took people a long time to speak up about it.

“The largest maternity scandal in NHS history and it was this committee that spoke up about it. That is my point and that’s what worries me.”

She said she could recall two times in her career that she had used the powers with a “significant impact” on both occasions.

She added: “It’s a dereliction of duty by this government.

“When services are not challenged or questioned by scrutiny committees, terrible things are missed.

“I think it sets a dangerous precedent. I’m appalled.

“There is no other body in Nottinghamshire that questions what is going on in our health service. To take away that bit of power we have will be to the detriment of people in Nottinghamshire.”

Jack and Sarah Hawkins, whose daughter Harriet died in the care of Nottingham University Hospitals in 2016 due to negligence, said they and other families have raised concerns about maternity services with health scrutiny committees at least since 2021.

They said: “Families have had to raise concerns with the health scrutiny committee. It is clear that the committee should have the right to contact the Secretary of State and receive a reply.

“Families have written to multiple health secretaries, sometimes without response. It is much easier to make contact with health scrutiny committees and to remove that route seems a clear mistake.”

Nottinghamshire County Council is required to amend its constitution to reflect the changes.

Council documents stated: “The Secretary of State for Health now has
a broad and discretionary power to intervene or call in reconfigurations of local services, including when requested to do so by any individual or organisation, including Health Scrutiny Committees themselves.

“Should the Secretary of State use their powers to intervene, then the local Health Scrutiny Committee will be advised and consulted accordingly.”

Cllr Steve Carr (Ind) said: “My question is why on earth change it? What perceived advantage will there be for anybody?

“I view it as another attack on local government.

“I think we should be writing to the secretary of state and asking what possible advantage is there from excluding health scrutiny committees all across the country from making referrals to something that is concerning them.

“I’m hoping the next government will reverse it because it’s absolutely stupid.”

Chair Cllr Jonathan Wheeler (Con) said: “I’m assuming it is to filter out malicious things going through on political grounds.

“I agree with you that the powers shouldn’t have changed.

“Nothing will change in terms of the level of scrutiny we give.

“If we do feel the need to refer we do have a new form. If it comes to it if we have to go down to London to speak to the secretary of state, that’s what I will do.”

Noel McMenamin, lead officer for health scrutiny, said: “The key change is that we no longer have as a health scrutiny committee the formal right to make direct referrals to the secretary of state for significant variations in health services.

“Rather, we have the right to request that the secretary for state intervenes.”

The committee agreed to write a letter to the secretary of state asking for the rationale in the changes.

The Government did not respond to a request for comment.

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