Cost of providing council social care ‘an increasingly common theme’ in complaints to ombudsman

More complaints are being made about councils failing to provide social care – or limiting the care provided – and using cost as a justification, an ombudsman has said.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said the cost of providing care has become “an increasingly common theme” in complaints received over the past year.

It received 2,596 complaints and enquiries about adult social care in 2021-22, with 70% of investigated cases upheld, according to its annual review, which covers council and independent care complaints,

Ombudsman Michael King said he is “frustrated to once again be reporting my view of an under-resourced system unable to consistently meet the needs of those it is designed to serve”.

He added: “The issues we are investigating are neither new nor surprising, but do indicate a system with a growing disconnect between the care to which people are entitled, and the ability of councils to meet those needs.

“Care assessments, care planning and charging for care have been key features of our cases this year and a common theme is councils failing to provide care, or limiting it, and justifying this because of the cost.

“We appreciate budgets are becoming increasingly stretched but authorities’ duties under the Care Act remain and we will continue to hold authorities to account for what they should be doing rather than what they can afford to do.”

In one case outlined in the report, “budgetary pressures” leading to a change in how the council assessed people’s contributions meant a family went from paying nothing for their elderly mother’s care to more than £3,500 a month.

In another, a young adult’s care and support needs were not met while two councils “argued about who should foot the bill”.

Mr King also expressed concerns that some people may not feel there is any point in complaining.

The overall number of complaints received fell 16% from the last comparable year – 2019-20 – when 3,073 complaints and enquiries were made.

This is the first fall since 2010, when the ombudsman’s role investigating independent care providers was established.

The number of complaints about care arranged and funded independently has fallen by around a fifth (21%) over the period.

Just 13% of complaints received in the last year were from people who arranged and funded their own care – 340, down from 430.

Despite the overall fall, the ombudsman made more service improvement recommendations – 631 compared with 596 in 2019-20.

Mr King went on: “I’m also concerned that more than a decade of rising demand and unmet need have left service users and their families disillusioned and feeling there is no point in making a complaint.

“I want people to know that their voice matters. What can at first appear a simple error affecting a single person can trigger a change in practice benefitting many others.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) said the report is the latest evidence showing how “critically underfunded” social care is, and the consequences.

The Government must take immediate action to prevent services worsening further, it added.

David Fothergill, chairman of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said: “Councils and care providers have worked tirelessly to keep vital care and support services going over the last year and continue to do so, despite significant and worsening financial and workforce challenges.

“As this report rightfully highlights, a significant number of complaints can be directly attributed to underfunding.”

It is positive to see an overall decrease in the number of complaints, he added.

A Government spokesperson said: “The Health and Social Care Secretary is focused on delivering for patients and has set out her four priorities of A, B, C, D – ambulances, backlogs, care, doctors and dentists.

“We are investing £5.4 billion over the next three years to reform adult social care – to end the lottery of unpredictable care costs and support the workforce.

“This includes £3.6 billion to reform the social care charging system and enable all local authorities to move towards paying providers a fair cost of care, and a further £1.7 billion to begin major improvements across adult social care in England – on top of record annual funding to help councils respond to rising demands and cost pressures.”

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