Local charities left smarting as health contracts go elsewhere

Local charities should have been awarded more contracts in a Government initiative to give citizens a stronger voice in health services, local councils for voluntary service have claimed.

The Department of Health has awarded local authorities £84m to replace patients forums with new groups called local involvement networks. The groups, known as Links, are intended to give people a bigger say in their local health services.

The networks are being established between April and September this year, and contracts to run them are worth several hundred thousand pounds each over three years.

Some local authorities have rejected bids from CVSs to run the networks and instead selected organisations based hundreds of miles away.

"The Government rhetoric about Links was about local knowledge, community involvement and the ability to work with hard- to-reach groups," said Bill Freeman, director of development at Navca. "But the reality is that organisations that hitherto had no interest in a local area are winning local contracts because they are good at winning contracts." The umbrella body wants councils to award grants rather than contracts, but EU competition rules prevent this.

Neil Walbran, health partnership officer for Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations, said only two out of 10 CVSs in Greater Manchester had won contracts. He questioned whether it was right that some successful bidders already worked in health.

Hillingdon Council in London awarded its contract to a Wiltshire not-for-profit organisation, Health Advocacy Partnership. It then asked the local CVS, Hillingdon Association of Voluntary Services, an unsuccessful bidder, to provide contact details of its 400 members.

"We are happy to help but we were not prepared to hand over our database," said Ted Hill, director of HAVS.

Ian Edwards, head of partnership and community engagement at Hillingdon Council, said HAP had "a proven track record in community engagement in health".

HAP has won eight of the 150 Links tenders nationally. Nick Westbrook, chief executive of the organisation, said it would employ people on the ground to work with local organisations. "We are a partnership-based organisation," he said.

A spokesman for the Local Government Association, which is delivering the scheme in partnership with the Department of Health, said bids were judged on experience, knowledge, reputation and value for money.

He added that about 75 per cent of contracts had gone to voluntary organisations. "Councils need to be trusted to make the correct decisions for their areas," he said.

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