THE spate of scandals which has tarnished the health service in recent years has seriously undermined public confidence in whether the voice of the patient is truly heard.

The likes of Alderhay, Bristol, Harold Shipman and - much closer to home, the Richard Neale outrage in Northallerton - would all have come to light earlier if concerns had been acted upon instead of stifled.

The need for greater transparency and accountability has been underlined by the public perception of a medical profession which closes ranks at the merest whiff of controversy.

The Government's announcement that community health councils are to be abolished will add to those fears - unless the patient forums which replace them prove their worth.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn, when questioned by this newspaper yesterday, insisted that they will: that the patient will have a stronger voice within the NHS, that there will be less chance of it being stifled.

What is not clear is whether patient forums will meet in public as did community health councils. Newspapers like The Northern Echo must ensure that they do, in the same way that we fought against attempts to shroud council meetings in greater secrecy.

In a different sphere, the shameful events surrounding Cleveland Police in recent years have highlighted the dangers of a profession attempting to act as its own watchdog.

The health service must heed the lesson.