Jeremy Hunt has defended the return of nearly £3bn Department of Health funding to the Treasury in the past two years.

The health secretary was speaking at the NHS Alliance conference in Bournemouth today.

He was questioned about HSJ’s revelation last month that just £316m of the £1.4bn DH underspend in 2011-12 was carried over for it to use in 2012-13, while the entire £1.9bn underspend in 2010-11 was returned to the Treasury.

Responding, Mr Hunt highlighted that the DH was receiving static real terms funding while other departments were facing significant real terms cuts. He also said that for “three or four years” under the previous government the DH had “underspent by more” than in the previous two years.

However, he said: “We do everything we can to minimise the underspend. It is not always possible because we people in the system get given their budget and they don’t always spend every penny they are given.”

It comes as CCGs have been told they will need to withhold about £2bn from routine spending next year. Informal planning guidance for 2013-14 shared with groups requires a 1 per cent surplus and 2 per cent to be spent on non-recurrent projects.

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt told the Alliance conference that CCGs would now be autonomous under an independently run NHS, and predicted they would develop integrated services.

He said: “You will now be able to see at a local level integration of services, which has been the Holy Grail for so long.

“It’s a false distinction to say we have a choice between fragmentation and markets [and integration]. We will see local clinical leadership racing to integrate but we also need the freedom to choose the best services available for patients in each area.”