Cuts to council budgets are making watchdog organisations for local patients “unviable”, the health secretary has been warned.
In a letter seen by The Independent, Sir Robert Francis QC, chair of Healthwatch England, said that funding to dozens of its branches, which are statutory bodies set up to champion patient interests locally, has been cut by 37 per cent since 2013.
Sir Robert, who chaired the public inquiry into the Stafford Hospital care scandal, told Matt Hancock that the cuts risked “stifling” the voices of patients across the country.
“I must write to flag my deep concerns about the funding of local Healthwatch,” he said in the letter. “Whilst the rate of budget reductions has fallen in the last year, our network’s resources continue to shrink and in some areas are becoming unviable.
“Ultimately, if no action is taken, then the cumulative impact of cuts risks stifling the voice of health and care users.”
He also revealed that local authorities were spending money given to them for Healthwatch on other things, and called on the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to improve transparency in its funding.
Healthwatch England was established in 2013, with 151 branches designed to represent patient interests on health services in each local area. They carry out research and highlight concerns about services.
In 2019-20, local Healthwatch branches expect to receive £25.5m in funding, a fall of 2 per cent. A year earlier, budgets were cut by more than 4 per cent.
Sir Robert said the “bottom of the barrel has been reached”, adding: “Since 2013, the network has seen core funding from councils fall by 36.6 per cent compared with the original allocation of £40.3m set out by the department.”
The cuts mean that 88 Healthwatch branches now receive less money than their forerunners, which were replaced in 2013 by the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act.
Local councils are not told specifically what funding to allocate to Healthwatch. The majority is supposed to come from central government grants, but Sir Robert said that, in the case of 71 local branches, more than 50 per cent came from a small fund.
He said: “We estimate this means that, at the very least, councils are now spending £2.8m of the money handed to them by your department on other things.”
He said the DHSC should make clear what money is to be allocated to each branch, and the money should be paid earlier in the financial year. This year’s grant was only paid in December.
Sir Robert said Healthwatch was looking to do commissioned work, but he said this could not fill gaps in core funding.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.