Yesterday I called on the Welsh Labour Government to rethink its approach to public engagement and consultation in Wales following unrest by local communities to planned changes to NHS services.
Despite the raft of legislation that exists on how local health boards and community health councils in Wales are to engage with the public over proposed changes to health services, it seems clear from the reaction to the plans unveiled so far that the public engagement and consultation process has been flawed.
Betsi Cadwaladr and Hywel Dda health boards have been criticised for failing to properly consult with local people over plans to reconfigure NHS services.
A Wales Audit Office report released last year stated that “there is no comprehensive national strategy for public engagement in Wales”.
In 2005, the Scottish Government introduced National Standards for Community Engagement, together with a dedicated website to support its public-sector organisations in developing, implementing and evaluating public engagement activity.
It is clear that the public engagement and consultation process in Betsi Cadwaladr and Hywel Dda local health boards have not been successful given that there is growing unrest from local communities about the future of local services.
In parts of north and west Wales, communities are already coming together to talk about how they might legally challenge the proposed changes and the National Assembly’s Petitions committee is receiving hundreds of signatures from across Wales calling on the National Assembly to act on their behalf.
When communities are faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of their local NHS services, it is vitally important that they are told why these changes are happening and that their concerns are listened to.
While changes to NHS services are seldom unopposed, the reaction from local communities suggests that Welsh Labour government needs to implement Wales-wide standards for engaging with the public and consulting about proposed changes to services.
The Welsh Labour Government needs to look to Scotland, where national standards for community engagement were introduced in 2005, together with a dedicated website to support public sector organisations in developing, implementing and evaluating public engagement activity.
Smooth and consensual changes to NHS services in my constituency were only possible because there was proper engagement with the community by the local health board. Local people knew what was going on, it was explained in detail why changes were necessary and they felt that their views were taken on board. This is a model that is needed in Wales to restore trust and create a better working relationship between people who run services and the people who use those services.
What we’ve seen so far is a weak and inconsistent attempt by the local health boards to push through controversial changes to local NHS services. This is not the way to make changes in the NHS or in our local communities. We need coherent and comprehensive Wales-wide standards for consultation on any proposed changes to the delivery of public services if we are to ensure that the views of the public are properly taken into account.