Labour’s plans for elderly care put essential services at risk

Frontline services such as social work, meals on wheels and road maintenance may have to be cut to cover the cost of controversial plans for elderly care at home, local authority leaders have warned. 
The £670 million required to provide free care for those most in need in their own homes — a key government policy— will add pressure to councils already trying to find multi million Pound savings.

A rise in council tax of between 1 and 2 per cent will be needed to meet the cost, while cuts in adult and childrens’ social care services are an “unwanted but very real possibility”, council chiefs have told The Times.

The warning came as Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, was forced to defend his Personal Care at Home Bill in a two hour appearance before the Commons Health Select Committee. He was questioned repeatedly about concerns surrounding the Bill reported by The Times, including its impact on care and clinical research budgets.

Critics believe that the costs calculated by the labour Government are a significant underestimate and care experts have attacked the policy for disrupting elderly care strategies and being little more than an attempt at eye catching electioneering.

The draft Bill, set out in the Queen’s Speech in November, was described by Labour peers as an “exocet” on social-care reform and “a demolition job” on budgets, while MPs and care providers have also criticised it for being ill-conceived and uncosted.

In the latest blow to Mr Burnham’s plans, council chiefs have told The Times that the extra costs will force tax rises and service cuts. 

Backroom staff, from lawyers and human resources workers to environmental planners, would also be at threat, as well as infrastructure programmes such as road maintenance. Plans to introduce or upgrade local amenities such as sports facilities, bus services and meals on wheels would have to be reassessed.

The annual cost of the Bill is put at £670 million, which ministers say will support 400,000 people with the highest needs to stay in their own homes. Of this total, £420 million is to come from existing Department of Health budgets. Local authorities have been told that they must provide the remaining £250 million from efficiency savings. The first year of the scheme, running from October to April 2011, would require £125 million of local authority efficiency savings.

Mr Burnham said that he “fundamentally rejected” the suggestion that the cost calculations were flawed. “The characterisation of an exocet is 100 per cent wrong,” he said.

Pressed on how £60 million of clinical research savings would be made to NHS budgets to help to fund the plans, and which areas would be affected, Mr Burnham said that it had yet to be finally decided, but would not involve frontline services.

Ken Thornber, head of Hampshire County Council and a member of the social care board of the Local Government Association (LGA), said that for councils already making multimillion-pound savings in backroom staff, this could be met only with an increase in council tax.

His council, one of the largest, was already trying to save £15 million a year and a further £15 million in 2011 to absorb inflationary pressures. “As things stand we would have to find between £5 million and £10 million over and above the £30 million which we are presently projected to need to find in 2011-12,” he said.

Mr Thornber added that it could mean up to £20 a year on council tax bills for the 550,000 households in Hampshire.

The funding from the Department of Health would not alleviate pressures on services, he said, because it was covering people who previously would have been cared for by the NHS or in care homes.

Jenny Owen, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) and director of adult social care for Essex County Council, said the council estimated that it would need to find £4 million of savings. “If you do not increase council tax by 1 or 2 per cent it will be a reduction in services.”

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health spokesman, said that the plans were being rushed through for electoral gain. “While in an ideal world we want to give free care to as many elderly people as possible, it is simply not affordable, particularly since we are in the throes of a debt crisis. The reality is that Gordon Brown will only be able to pay for this through cuts to the NHS and higher council taxes.”

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