• Nearly 50 groups have seen very large year on year cuts, averaging 17 per cent
  • Total cut by 37 per cent from original 2013-14 allocation
  • Compromising statutory functions

Statutory public involvement groups have seen such deep cuts they are failing to fulfil basic functions, Healthwatch England has warned the government.

The strength of concern, set out in a letter to Jeremy Hunt today and shared with HSJ, is unprecedented from the national organisation.

It cites a range of serious problems experienced by the 152 local Healthwatch groups, which it says have become severe over the past year. The groups’ basic statutory functions are being compromised, it warns.

The local groups are contracted and paid for by local authorities, which themselves are experiencing substantial funding cuts.

The letter calls on the Department of Health to help, including by being more transparent about how much grant funding is intended to go to Healthwatch.

Healthwatch England says its analysis shows a 6.9 per cent year on year total funding cut in 2017-18, to £27.4m. Forty-seven of the 152 Healthwatch groups saw much larger cuts this year, averaging 17 per cent.

Last month, Healthwatch wrote to Staffordshire County Council after it said it would cut its Healtwatch budget in half to £210,000.

The total spending on local Healthwatch in 2017-18 is 37 per cent down on the original allocation for it in 2013-14, the first year of operation.

The groups replaced Local Involvement Networks as the statutory public and patient involvement organisations, and their work involves providing advice and information, and contributing public views to the health and care systems.

The letter from Healthwatch England chair Jane Mordue says: “Over the past year local Healthwatch have shared with us their concerns that local authority led decisions are putting at risk the ability of the network to deliver on its statutory obligations.

“Our analysis of the network’s financial position confirms these fears. We consider that it is now necessary for the department to step up its work with Healthwatch England and others in order to maintain an effective Healthwatch network.”

She adds: “In some areas budget reductions are now at a level where local authorities are attempting to commission local Healthwatch organisations on a basis which would leave them unable to fulfil their statutory obligations.”

The letter says some councils have issued tenders trying to exclude the provision of information and advice, to “only provide a part-time” service, and told Healthwatch to find resources elsewhere, which is “based on a clear misunderstanding of the legal position”.

It says: “Even in areas where funding has been maintained local Healthwatch continue to operate on very tight budgets and with very small staff teams (often only two people) covering very large geographical areas and populations.”

Cuts have also “had an unwelcome impact on the ability of local Healthwatch to participate effectively in strategic discussions including work relating to sustainability and transformation partnerships and accountable care systems/organisations”.

LGA community wellbeing board chair Councillor Izzi Seccombe said: ”Councils are committed to championing the voice of those who receive care and support and making sure this is a key part of shaping local services.

”Funding for Healthwatch groups forms part of the general local government funding pot, which has experienced unprecedented cuts from central government in recent years. We estimate that local government faces an overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020 as well as an immediate £1.3bn pressure to stabilise the care provider market.

“As a result councils are having to make increasingly difficult decisions about where to spend money, which has in many cases meant prioritising areas such as adult and children’s social care services.” 

The DH has been approached for comment.

See Healthwatch letter and briefing