A HEALTH boss has addressed concerns expressed by the leader of a watchdog over controversial cuts which critics say will hit the vulnerable hardest.

Peter Pinfield, chairman of Healthwatch, wrote a letter to Dr Richard Harling, director of adult services and health at Worcestershire County Council, revealing the "significant concern" the public had about the potential cuts.

No decisions have yet been taken on the cuts with discussions expected to take place on February 12 following the closure of the consultation on January 21.

Mr Pinfield said he had concerns over whether volunteers would be able to take over certain services now provided by the council following cuts proposed in Future Lives. He also said some of the cuts, particularly in the area of prevention, flew in the face of 'current thinking' about health. He said delays in making an accessible version of the consultation document available had disadvantaged consumers with learning disabilities in giving feedback and the timing of the consultation over Christmas and New Year had not been ideal, limiting opportunities to respond. He also expressed a worry about consumers deteriorating to a level of substantial or critical need once supporting people services were withdrawn.

He was also concerned about 'digital discrimination' in terms of vulnerable people being able to access the internet for the services they need in the future.

Worcestershire County Council is facing a period of rapid and substantial change due to the growing financial challenges facing local government. The council needs to save £30 million in 2014/15 and then £25 million annually thereafter. With less money available, the council's priorities for investment will increasingly have to be its core legal duties. There will be less funding available for discretionary services. This includes prevention, early help and other support services for adults and young people, which were the subject of the recent consultation.

During the consultation period 10,000 hard copies of the questionnaires were printed and distributed with a freepost address for responses. The council also maintained a website where residents could submit a response online or download a questionnaire to complete. There were 4,113 visits to the website with 2,936 unique visitors and 213 mentions of #futurelives on Twitter with #futurelives was retweeted a further 109 times. There were 99 consultation meetings attended by over 1,500 people. 

A total of over 1,800 responses including 5,500 comments as well as four petitions with over 2,000 signatures were received.

Dr Richard Harling, director of adult services and health at the county council said: "The council is committed to enhancing access to the full range of its services via the internet. The aim is to have a high quality website that offers a full range of information and advice relevant to health and well-being and adult social care, with signposting to opportunities in the community as well as an e-marketplace where services could be purchased, either with Direct Payments for council funded services, or by self-funders. We recognise that vulnerable people will need support to access the internet and will be working with service users, carers and the voluntary sector to understand what sort of support they will need and how we put this in place."

He said of volunteers: "With less discretionary funding available from the council we will need more volunteers to contribute to supporting vulnerable people. This will include 'good citizenship' (e.g. visiting an elderly neighbour) as well as organised volunteering through the voluntary sector. The council is working with the voluntary sector to develop a strategy to increase volunteering and build on community assets to increase the range and depth of support available in communities."