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Local authorities responding to health petitions – Health Policy Today, 4 September 2008

The magazine edited by David Walker, Public landed on my doormat this morning.  An article on ‘engagement’ by local authorities caught my eye. The obligation to respond to petitions could lead to an expensive exercise that does nothing to engage.


A very short Health Policy Today is inspired by a piece in Public magazine.  It says, ‘a new obligation on councils to respond to petitions could prove problematic, as No 10’s e-petition initiative has shown.  Last month it was forced to respond to yet another bunch of digital signatories calling for the Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson to be made Prime Minister’.  It is concerned that ‘councils could end up spending lots of time and money responding to spoof or outlandish petitions simply if more than 500 people have signed them’.

This obligation was set out in the empowerment white paper that was published in July.  Chief executives are now thinking about the consequences.  Any request, ranging from allowing smoking in some premises, through to complaints about the distribution of money across budgets, will have to be researched and responded to.  Responding to petitions could be a nightmare for local authority managers.

The situation could be worse for health managers, because they are removed from local authorities that will be required to coordinate petitions that relate to the provision of health care or the activities of the local PCT.  The PCT will be accountable to local people, in part, via the local authority petition mechanism.

It isn’t very difficult to gather five hundred signatures against something – the closure of a service or a branch practice.

Imagine, for example, that the finalised NHS Constitution fails to completely clarify all rules and ensure uniformity of provision, which is likely. PCTs all over the country are likely to receive petitions objecting to local rules on a variety of conditions.  

Perhaps the first test for local authorities will be the second stage of the BMA’s 'Save Our Surgeries' campaign, which is likely to make PCT managers’ lives even more difficult.  They plan to take their campaign to a local level and are likely to gather petitions themselves, to present to local authorities, against the closure of GP practices and the introduction of polyclinics.