The Department of Health is expecting the budget of public involvement bodies to be nearly halved next year, just as ministers are promising to empower patients, HSJ has learned.

A letter from the DH dated last month appears to suggest officials think local authorities should give local involvement networks (LINks) a budget of about £80,000 in 2011-12.

The letter, sent to a group of councils and seen by HSJ, says the average funding for a LINk in 2010-11 is £140,000. This suggests a typical cut of £60,000 – or 43 per cent of their current budget.

It says: “The base funding for a LINk… has been estimated by the DH to be £80k. It is proposed that authorities identify a figure close to this as a starting point for investment in 2011-12.”

It suggests savings can be made from LINks’ budgets by sharing administration functions across councils and giving them access to buildings. The letter was sent from a DH civil servant to the London Joint Improvement Partnership, which leads council joint working with other agencies.

The government has promised to develop LINks into stronger organisations with more power, called HealthWatch. Its paper Liberating the NHS: Legislative Framework and Next Steps last month said LINks’ funding would “continue through the transition into local HealthWatch, and will be enhanced to reflect HealthWatch’s responsibilities”.

Malcolm Alexander, chair of the National Association of LINks Members, said: “Local authorities are cutting budgets to ribbons on the one hand just as the government is talking about creating newly powerful bodies for the community.”

He said this level of cut would leave LINks’ “capacity to function at basically nil”. He said: “Ministers have got to secure the money or these changes are not going to work.”

The letter has also fuelled LINks members’ fears’ about the organisations’ future independence from local authorities. It says authorities should not cut funding to LINks’ “host organisations”, the bodies which help manage LINks, because “then they will not be able to exert any leverage on the LINk membership organisation”.

Mr Alexander said: “Local authorities should have no leverage over LINks or HealthWatch. Critically, their job is to monitor local authorities. The idea they would have leverage over that is outrageous and undermines the whole job they [LINks] are supposed to do.”

Sally Brearley, visiting senior fellow in public involvement at King’s College London, and a member of Sutton LINk, said: “It implies the DH is telling local authorities to spend significantly less. Cuts of this size would be a threat to the coalition’s commitment to public and patient involvement. It is extremely worrying.”

UPDATE

In a statement added later, a DH spokeswoman said: “We have upheld the same level of funding  for 2011-12 for local authorities to continue to fund Links so that they can prepare to become local HealthWatch organisations from 2012.

“We wrote to London local authorities to highlight the need to continue to fund LINks in 2011-12. We will be issuing clarification to local authorities and Links to dispel any confusion caused in quoting a £80,000 base funding figure, which was included in error.”