Hospital trusts accused of avoiding scrutiny: Labour condemns 'secret society' within NHS

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The Independent Online
SOME NHS trusts have failed to hold annual public meetings and many others will not disclose their policy on accountability to local people, according to a Labour survey.

Nearly half the first- and second-wave trusts did not allow patients' watchdog representatives from the Community Health Councils into any board meetings. The public and press were excluded from every board meeting held by half the first- wave trusts that came into effect two years ago, and nearly two- thirds of the second-wave trusts.

Labour's findings were based on replies to a questionnaire sent to the 159 trust hospitals and community health service 'providers', 125 of whom replied. Under the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act 1990, trusts are required to hold annual public meetings to ensure public scrutiny of their activities.

However, of the second-wave trusts responding to the questionnaire, only 17.3 per cent had held, or were planning to hold, a public meeting within the first year of existence. The remaining 82.7 per cent were scheduling the first public meeting for September, about 18 months after coming into operation.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said that the latest survey provided further evidence of a 'secret society' spreading through the NHS under the market changes introduced in 1991. He referred to a recent report by Professor John Stewart, of Birmingham University, citing a 'crisis of accountability' in the government of Britain. 'A non-elected elite are assuming responsibility for a large part of local governance. They are found on the boards of hospital trusts,' his report said.

Mr Blunkett, who praised the minority of trusts that had tried to open up their activities, said: 'We need a major push from the centre to force trust boards to improve performance.'

The Department of Health said that trusts were excused from the requirement to hold an annual public meeting in their first year until annual reports had been completed and accounts independently audited.