NHS England has been warned it could face unfair dismissal claims over plans to make about 900 commissioning staff redundant, HSJ has learned.

The threat relates to the national commissioning body’s plans to reorganise its primary care support services, which administrate primary care. It has also emerged that the NHS England board is concerned about the plans.

The support services’ functions include supporting screening programmes, maintaining population databases, and coordinating charges for prescriptions and optician and dentist services.

They were transferred to NHS England when primary care trusts were abolished in April last year. However, unlike other commissioning functions, they were not significantly reorganised, instead bring “lifted and shifted” as a whole, with the intention of reorganising them during 2013-14.

NHS England has been developing plans for reorganising them in recent months.

Correspondence seen by HSJ between Unison and NHS England chief executive Sir David Nicholson reveals the current proposals – which could make around 900 of 1,800 staff redundant – could be subject to a legal challenge.

Unison’s letter to Sir David argues that when a workforce transfer takes place the new employer is obliged to notify staff of any changes likely to occur as a result. Although staff were told that primary care services would be reviewed during 2013-14, the possibility of redundancies was not mentioned.

Unison representative Nick Bradley wrote to Sir David late last year: “It would be the case that staff could claim they had been unfairly dismissed.”

In his reply, Sir David wrote that “the legalities” were “a matter I am taking most seriously”, and that he would seek legal advice on the matter.

NHS England declined to answer HSJ’s inquiry about whether the issue had now been resolved. Unison’s position on the issue is unchanged.

Sir David also wrote at the time: “The [NHS England] board also raised some concerns about business continuity through the reorganisation and the potential impact on staff, services and stakeholders. This is something we take very seriously.”

NHS England is currently consulting on plans which aim to save £40m out of a £100m annual budget by consolidating the services into 12 regional centres.

NHS England had set aside a £130m “transitionary funding” budget to fund the associated redundancies in 2013-14. Due to delays to the work, these will not take place in 2013-14 and are considered likely to be made in autumn this year.

It is unclear whether funding for redundancies will be available in 2014-15 and NHS England has repeatedly failed to answer questions on the matter.

Mr Bradley, speaking to HSJ, acknowledged primary care support may need to be reorganised.  However he told HSJ: “Whether this is the right way to do it, and whether NHS England are coming up with safe levels of staff to do the work is another matter.

“We are concerned about the number of potential redundancies, and whether or not the services these staff are providing for patients can be safely delivered if we lose half the staff.”

He added: “These are a group of staff who feel badly treated, whose morale is very low and who wonder if they have any future.”

Meanwhile, NHS England has said it had received a proposal to take over the support services nationally from Shared Services Connected Ltd, a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and Steria, a business services firm, which it is assessing alongside other approaches.

An NHS England source told HSJ the services are expected to be considered for outsourcing once they have been reorganised and the workforce halved.