Patients may be left in the lurch as complaints services begin to fall apart ahead of the planned formal abolition of community health councils in 2002.

The row over CHCs dominated last week's second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill, but the effects of the abolition announcement have already left some CHCs unable to maintain their complaints work.

Janis Bryan, chief officer of Bromley CHC - where two staff have already left - said: 'We had to back off from intense involvement in complaints at about the end of November. In the state We are in It is difficult to keep going.'

The departure of the two key staff was 'directly attributable' to the abolition announcement, she said.

London Health Link chief officer Elizabeth Manero accused the government of 'real vandalism' and said there had been no national guidance on what CHCs should do about work that had a timescale taking it past the proposed abolition date.

'There is a whiff of incompetence about it now, which I have to say is unusual for this Department of Health, ' said Ms Manero.

Association of CHCs for England and Wales director Donna Covey also warned of a worsening situation: 'We may soon be in a situation where it becomes impossible for many CHCs to deliver a complaints service of the same quality as previously.'

And concerns about the lack of independence of successor bodies was 'likely to mean that there will be no simple handover of complaints work', she added.

South Lincolnshire CHC chief officer Beth Harding said her CHC had drawn up its own 'exit strategy', and was meeting local authorities and the Citizens Advice Bureau to discuss the future.

'We are saying we will continue to assist complainants, providing they understand that we are being abolished and we do not know who or what will take over.'

Ms Harding also faces staff losses.

'Our secretary left today - and who wants to work for a CHC now?'

Nik Barstow, chief officer at Central Manchester CHC and chair of Unison's national CHC forum, criticised the 'lack of a centralised lead'.

'Despite promises last November that a national human resources strategy would be agreed, nothing has been forthcoming from the DoH.'

He said the drain of experience would leave many individual complainants wondering where to go.

Health secretary Alan Milburn was attacked over CHC abolition within minutes of the start of the stormy eight-hour debate on the Health and Social Care Bill last week by Conservative MP Peter Bottomley.

Labour health select committee chair David Hinchliffe joined opposition MPs in warning against the move. But, in an attempt to allay fears about the lack of independence of patient advocacy and liaison services and the 'independent advocacy service' for complainants described in the bill, Mr Milburn suggested further departures from the scheme outlined in the NHS plan.

'To safeguard against their 'capture' by NHS trusts or primary care trusts, the independent patient forum will be able to recommend that a patient advocacy service be taken out of the trust and be run independently from it, ' he told MPs. He added that there was 'merit' in the argument that there would be advantages if the independent service to support complaints was provided by a local authority, which is expected to be considered when the bill goes to committee this week.

A DoH spokesperson said CHCs were working with regional offices on the most appropriate way of filling posts, and that guidance on the new systems would be issued later this year.