NHS to recruit housewives as board members

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Ordinary members of the public are to be paid and trained to join the boards of NHS hospitals in a new move by Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, to defuse a damaging row with his own backbenchers.

Housewives will be among the people that ministers want to recruit for the first time as paid "trustees" to provide a powerful new voice for their neighbourhoods on trusts run by family doctors or faceless hospital managers.

It is part of a concerted attempt ordered by Tony Blair to neutralise a series of disputes with Labour supporters over the abolition of community health councils and private finance for public services.

A survey by community health councils last week attacked the Government for allowing the elderly to face longer waits for treatment in accident and emergency units. The plan to scrap them was seen as a spiteful move by ministers to silence their independent voice.

Health minister Hazel Blears admitted that ministers "got it wrong" when they proposed the abolition of community health councils before the election. That move provoked a revolt by Labour MPs in the Commons led by David Hinchliffe, the Labour chairman of the cross-party select committee on health, and it had to be abandoned after it was blocked in the Lords in a government defeat.

Mr Milburn is planning to reintroduce the measure as part of major reforms to the NHS in November. However, he is hoping to buy off the opposition to the abolition of the CHCs with the offer of new seats on the boards of trusts for members of the public.

Ms Blears said: "Where we got it wrong was there was nothing in the proposals to pick up the community voice. The CHCs claimed to be the community voice. People felt that was being taken away from them. What we have to introduce is a strong independent mechanism that brings together the views of the patients' forums and the views of citizens. I believe very strongly that there is a role for people who are not patients but citizens in their communities. The thing we didn't pick up last year was that community view."

Labour's defeat in Wyre Forest at the election by a doctor standing as an independent against the closure of a hospital in Kidderminster was a warning to the Government, she said. "That issue of the local hospital motivated people to come out and vote – the turn-out on the council estates was 80 per cent. That to me is a real lesson to all of us: people care about the health service. We need a system so that people can say 'this is my hospital'."

The British Medical Association remained doubtful last night that it would be enough to end the row over the abolition of CHCs. "I don't think it will satisfy people. There is still a strong suspicion that the Government is trying to get rid of an awkward independence voice. Opponents will not see this as a satisfactory solution," said a BMA source.

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