Why social care providers want their stars back

The abolition of star ratings for care homes and homecare services is now being called into question, as there’s no way of knowing which services are better than others

Bring back star ratings! The call for an immediate return in England to the simple and easily understood measure of the quality of a care home, or homecare service, is being made today not by a consumer group, not by a social welfare charity, but by homecare operator Mears Group.

Star ratings, or “quality ratings” as they were officially known, were dropped last year by the regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), as being incompatible with its new role of registering health and social care providers who meet “essential standards of quality and safety”. So once a service gains registration, and provided it passes what from next year will be annual, unannounced inspections, that is the only classification it gets.

Plainly, this is at odds with the idea of a developing care market where people, whether paying their own way or state-funded, are increasingly making their own choice of service. To do so, they need help in deciding between 18,000 registered care homes and 6,000 homecare agencies. All of them meet essential standards, but which of them are better than others?

The issue raises big questions about the role of regulation that will be a key theme at the annual National Children and Adult Services Conference in London. In fairness, the CQC acknowledges that it left a void when it abandoned star ratings, and that it may have done so too precipitately, but its proposed alternative – a voluntary “excellence” kitemark that care operators would have been charged extra for – has been ditched after a consultation found almost no support for the plan.

In the absence of any current, objective rankings, care providers whose services won two stars (good) or three stars (excellent) under the old system are still using them for marketing purposes, even though they may have been awarded three years ago. The ratings are, indeed, still on the CQC website. Significantly, some providers who were no great fans of the system at the time now look back on it fondly.

Research for Mears among 250 individuals and families either already paying for homecare, or about to do so, has found overwhelming demand for a return to simple, comparative ratings. A Department of Health working group now looking at the issue, led by Carers UK chief executive Imelda Redmond, is likely to be sympathetic to the general point, but unlikely to revive the rudimentary three-star scale.

What ministers might like to bear in mind is that the star ratings were conceived in part as a means of fostering price competition. Without any yardstick, why should one care provider be paid less than another?