Highlands In Turmoil Over Free Care

Longer waiting times and cutbacks in services are on the cards for some of the most vulnerable people in the Highlands who rely on “free” community care, councillors were warned yesterday. Inverness councillors must still find £400,000 of savings in this financial year to balance their social work budget.

And yesterday there was a fresh warning that a particularly tough winter could leave services unable to cope.

Officials said a £2.1million Highland-wide saving – dictated by the local government settlement – had been achieved but warned a further saving of £900,000 was still required for this year. Around half of that must come from the Inverness area social work budget.

The area’s community care manager, John Dunlop, told the Inverness housing and social work services committee that the budget was under “considerable pressure”, mainly through large (£30,000-plus) care packages.

He explained: “We have new eligibility criteria and people get care because they are assessed as being at significant risk.

“We are taking all the actions we can, but there is no slack left and we are trying to slice what is a life-sustaining cake thinner.

“A lot of people are waiting for services. We are screening people and sending delay letters to some of them, but there are too many waiting.

“Home care costs have increased by £100,000 because carers now get an increased mileage allowance.”

The Press and Journal last week highlighted claims that, in some areas, elderly people in the Highlands were being bathed by carers as seldom as once a month as a result of cost-cutting.

And in February we reported the case of a 93-year-old blind woman in Fortrose who was told that council carers would no longer cook her hot meals at home because of cutbacks.

The outcome of a review of community care spending in the Inverness area is expected next month. Its focus is on staff vacancies, large care packages, fair access to community care, energy savings and transport costs. No one was prejudging yesterday where the axe will fall.

Chairing the area meeting, Councillor Jimmy MacDonald said: “If somebody’s demanding that we come in on budget, we’ve got to find the money or we’ve got to cut the service. Hard decisions are going to have to be taken.

“It’s very difficult to monitor. You have to get into people’s bank accounts to find out what is happening. We’ve set up a team which will search very closely to ensure the proper people are getting it and that they’re getting the appropriate amount of money.”

Blaming the Scottish Executive’s demands for the provision of personal care, Mr MacDonald added: “We cannot sustain these pressures . . . it’s not just Inverness, it’s across the Highlands that we’re seeing this problem because there’s just not enough money in the system.”

“And we’re coming into the part of the year which is most expensive – the winter.”

Asked by Merkinch councillor Peter Corbett if the council was receiving full funding for free personal care from the executive, Mr Dunlop said he did not believe it was the right sum.

Inshes councillor Janet Home said: “We have to worry about people getting care, not just about our budgets. If people have to go into care homes, that will cost the council even more.”

Fergus Ewing, the Nationalist MSP for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, also questioned the level of executive support.

“The Labour-Liberal executive has failed to recognise the additional costs of providing community care in the Highlands and Islands,” he said.

“Last month, the executive brusquely dismissed a plea from Highland Council convener Alison Magee to redress the funding crisis.

“The situation is critical and I renew my plea to Jack McConnell as he visits Inverness – are you going to continue to do nothing or start treating the Highlands’ special needs fairly?”

An executive spokesman said: “We are fully committed to free personal and nursing care, which has benefited nearly 50,000 older people in Scotland. We are continuing to work with councils to ensure that older people receive services in line with their needs.

“Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide community care services to people they assess as needing them. We have provided them with adequate resources to do that, including sufficient provision for free personal care since it was introduced in 2002.”

Mr MacDonald said: “I warned years ago that we would have to be careful that people from south of the border weren’t moving to Scotland to get this service, while keeping a hold of their own money.”

The council is trying to find £14.2million of savings in its current budget and “around £14million” for 2007/08.