Outcry as funding package for health watchdog nearly halved

COUNCIL chiefs have been accused of making “brutal cuts” to budgets for a new health and social care watchdog.

Campaigners say the budget in North Yorkshire for the new Local Healthwatch (LHW) is nearly 50 per cent lower than that received by a predecessor organisation five years earlier.

They are warning funding for the new groups set up in April under the Government’s controversial health reforms is inadequate – despite what they claim are significant increases in central funding intended for the watchdogs.

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They accuse councils of using funding for the groups for other purposes “robbing the patients and users of health and social care they were supposed to empower and restricting their ability to campaign for better local services”.

In a survey, the Healthwatch and Social Involvement Association (HAPIA) says it has discovered 23 areas which have suffered cuts including a 17 per cent drop in the budget for Staffordshire Healthwatch despite the scandal at the Mid Staffordshire NHS trust exposed in the recent Francis Report.

Thirteen local authorities have made tiny increases to budgets of up to £15,000 which they claim are too small to have any real significance.

In the region, North Yorkshire has seen its Healthwatch budget fall by 47 per cent to £177,000 since 2008. North East Lincolnshire has seen an increase of only £8,000 or seven per cent over the period to £128,000 but in Doncaster it has more than doubled to £363,000.

The group claims local authorities in London, the South East and East of England have poured significant extra funding into the groups but in the North they are being starved of cash.

Ruth Marsden, of HAPIA North, said: “Empowerment is not achieved by making paupers of the people’s champions. Local authorities picking at the cash-carcass of LHW is a shameful spectacle. Events have proved all too graphically, tragically and frequently, that neither the NHS, regulators, local authorities nor the government adequately protect the sick and the vulnerable. It’s long past time to ensure the public, through Healthwatch, will be the eyes and ears – after all, that exactly what LHW was enshrined in law to do.”

Malcolm Alexander, of HAPIA South, said: “We applaud those local authorities that have increased budgets for LHW and are leading the way to create powerful and effective LHW – a critical development post-Francis. Massive budget cuts by 23 local authorities are truly shocking.

“LHW is the public’s statutory voice in health and social care and will be muzzled without adequate funding. LHW must have resources to monitor all health and social care services within their area and hold providers and commissioners to account for the safety, effectiveness and accessibility of local services. Local authorities that starve LHW of funds will be complicit if services fail and harm those in need of care. We deplore the lower funding levels in the north of England.”

A spokesman for North Yorkshire County Council said: “It is not specifically identified as Healthwatch funding and none of the grants is ring fenced.

“North Yorkshire County Council has a long history of providing funds to organisations that provide support for people with mental health problems, organisations that provide advocacy support for people entering social care and Citizens’ Advice Bureaux across the county. This work is very much akin to the activities of Healthwatch. Funding for Healthwatch should be seen in this context and viewed as part of a much broader picture.

“The financial situation is that as a result of cuts in funding from central government, by the end of 2014-15 the council will have to make savings of £93m and by the end of 2018-19 it will have to save in the region of a further £66m. Consequently every area of spending is under scrutiny.”