Key rulings on the future of health services across Cumbria were rushed through ahead of the local council elections, it has emerged.

The Cumbria Health Scrutiny Committee has come under fire after it failed to use special powers to refer controversial Success Regime plans to downgrade paediatrics and close community hospital beds to the Secretary of State.

The meeting was branded a “farce” after some members backtracked on their earlier decisions and four councillors left before the final crunch vote - with three later claiming they were confused/misinformed about the process or thought the meeting was over.

Now we can reveal the decisions made by the scrutiny committee were rushed through to avoid a lengthy delay .

Official papers issued to the committee reveal that normal procedure was not followed due to “purdah” - the pre-election period which prevents major announcements that could potentially influence voting.

In this case, it was due to begin the day after last Wednesday’s scrutiny committee meeting - six weeks before the May 4 elections.

Local health campaigners had hoped the committee would intervene and help stop plans to cut local health services and hospital beds.

The decisions being considered were those drawn up by the Success Regime and subsequently approved by NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) at its high-profile meeting on March 8.

They include downgrading maternity and children’s services at Whitehaven and closing cottage hospital beds in Maryport, Alston and Wigton.

But in the end, after a day-long meeting in Carlisle, only the decision about maternity was referred to health secretary Jeremy Hunt - despite councillors having initially voted earlier in the day to refer all three matters.

In usual circumstances, members considering such key decisions would initially meet to vote on whether they wanted to refer the plans.

The papers that went to the committee explain that there would then usually be an official period of dispute resolution, to see if the committee and NHS leaders could first reach some sort of compromise. This would be reported back to the committee at its next meeting, to see if members still wanted to refer.

But in this case, the upcoming purdah period and subsequent local election would have meant this process being significantly delayed.

A report by corporate director Dawn Roberts, received by councillors ahead of the meeting, explained: “This would have the impact of delaying the final decision until May 24, with a resultant increase in uncertainty within the health system.

“Given this, discussions have taken place with the CCG and it has been agreed that if necessary the resolution procedure will be undertaken within an adjournment on the March 22 meeting.

"The committee will reconvene immediately after this, on the 22nd, to agree whether the resolution process had been successful and then make a further decision about whether to refer to the Secretary of State.”

As a result, Wednesday’s meeting saw councillors adjourn after casting their initial votes while senior committee members met with NHS bosses.

About an hour later they reconvened, however with four of the original 11 members having now left. The originally strong votes to refer paediatrics and community hospitals then changed dramatically, resulting in both being withdrawn.

Copeland’s Raymond Gill, vice chairman of the committee, would have been eligible to attend the dispute resolution negotiations had he not left early.

He claims he did not realise the discussions and second vote were taking place that same day, despite that being explained in the papers.