Headlines: October 18th, 2005

Local authorities’ role in scrutinising health services has helped to bring about an increasingly constructive and collaborative approach between health bodies and local councils in achieving public health outcomes, according to new research evaluating the effectiveness of local government’s health scrutiny function.The study found many positive benefits. Its findings are largely based on survey evidence from local authorities and health bodies and have been released as the first phase of a three-year evaluative research programme by a team from the University of Manchester as part of the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s Health Scrutiny Support Programme.

Key conclusions from the research are that the relationships between NHS bodies and councils have generally improved since the introduction of health scrutiny and that the function is having an impact on service delivery, with 40 per cent of health bodies having changed their policy, procedures or services as a result of scrutiny recommendations. The research team found, too, that scrutiny was focusing increasingly on broad cross-cutting reviews of public health topics, rather than favouring scrutiny of specific NHS organisations. Health bodies, the study says, often consider scrutiny a useful way of building public confidence in proposals.

Tim Gilling, the Health Scrutiny Programme Manager at the CPS, said health scrutiny had developed tremendously since its introduction and the report showed that scrutiny committees were now active, not only looking at the planning and delivery of healthcare but increasingly tackling the public health agenda and promoting what local councils could do to improve health.

There was, he said, still a range of experience across the country and remaining barriers to effective scrutiny included the volume of ‘substantial developments and variations’ to health services, which were placing further demands on limited health scrutiny resources and which had the potential to divert scrutiny committees from other cross-cutting reviews. Other problems revolved around resources for both health scrutiny committees and the NHS, and the lack of clarity about the relative roles and responsibilities between health scrutiny committees and other NHS structures.

In the next phase of the evaluation the University of Manchester team will carry out fieldwork to get a more detailed view of the factors helping or hindering effective health scrutiny. Copies of the executive summary of the research and the full report are available at www.cfps.org.uk/publications