Think tank calls for independent body to oversee and regulate social care market

An independent body should be created to oversee and regulate the social care market to prevent “unfair outcomes”, according to a think tank.

New regulations are needed to ensure older recipients of residential care pay the right price and that there is enough supply from providers, the Social Market Foundation (SMF) said.

Care is purchased by councils and self-funders from providers, but in some areas there is an oversupply or too much competition, while “care deserts” are being created in others.

The SMF said the social care system must be overhauled if it is to function as a genuine and fair market.

The independent body should fall under the remit of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), which could be given new powers to oversee the market, it said.

SMF director James Kirkup (pictured) said: “Like it or not, care in England is provided in a marketplace, where buyers and sellers agree on the price paid in exchange for a service.

“Since we have a market for care, policymakers should do more to ensure that this market works fairly and properly, for the benefit of the people in it.

“There is not enough discussion about the care system as a market. Politicians need to do more to develop and implement policies that will make that market work in the long-term interests of users and the country as a whole.

“That means giving suppliers more certainty about future demand and prices, to help maintain the long-term supply of care.

“There can be good reasons for differences in the rates paid by local councils and self-funders, but if local authorities are in a position to drive prices down they may end up jeopardising supply by forcing providers out of the market for local-authority funded care.”

The briefing paper recommends the CQC should create national guidelines for the minimum cost of social care services, produce forecasts for future demand and cost by need and place, and monitor competition at a local and regional level.

Guidelines could increase transparency within the market, stabilise the financial position of residential care homes and reduce the occurrence of “care deserts” in disadvantaged areas.

Forecasts would enable investment in the areas and services that need it most.

The SMF cited 2017 research from the Competition and Markets Authority showing that self-funders in some parts of the country were paying up to 52% more for their care than local authority residents.

The paper, sponsored by private health care provider Bupa, said: “In some aspects, it may be fair that residents pay different amounts for their care depending on who is paying for this: there are benefits to bulk-buying and being able to pay for additional services.

“However, it is unfair if this is occurring simply because local authorities’ fees do not cover the cost of providing care, requiring providers to make up the difference by charging self-funders more.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We know there is a need for a long-term solution for social care and are looking at a range of proposals as part of our commitment to bringing forward a plan that puts the sector on a sustainable footing for the future.

“We provided councils with access to an additional £1.5 billion for adult and children’s social care in 2020/21 and we have made £3.7 billion available to councils in England so they can address pressures on local services caused by the pandemic, including in adult social care.

“We have also set out a new adult social care winter plan to ensure the sector has the resources it needs to keep residents and staff safe, including free PPE and an extra £546 million for the Infection Control Fund.”

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