We need clarity over care costs

The role of councils is to provide public services to people in their area according to local circumstances. There is universal agreement that people who are mentally or physically disabled and the infirm elderly require support.

How that should be provided is a complex issue. Although personal care is free for people over 65 in Scotland who need assistance with basic requirements such as washing and preparing food, charges can be levied for other services including the provision of a community alarm, delivering shopping and attendance at day care centres.

Self-evidently those who need such help are among the most vulnerable in society and the majority will have very little disposable income after they have met the basic necessities of housing, heating and food.

All local authorities have been forced to reduce their budgets and reappraise all their spending. One result is the dramatic variation in amounts charged by local authorities to disabled people for basic services revealed by The Herald today as a result of research by our social affairs correspondent, Stephen Naysmith.

It makes disturbing reading. The biggest disparity is in charges for care in day centres. A disabled adult in Dundee may have to pay up to £54.80 for a half day in a care centre while the charge in the neighbouring council of Angus is £1.64 a day.

Fourteen councils, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, make no charge at all for adult day centres, while others charge a few pounds, mainly for the cost of a meal.

There is also considerable discrepancy although less marked, in charges for elderly care. Day centre charges would appear to be an example of a highly unfair postcode lottery. However, comparison is particularly difficult because services are means-tested and the basis for that also varies.

These discrepancies have prompted charities supporting the elderly and disabled to call for more equity in both charges and standard of services across Scotland.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities recognises there is a problem and is currently reviewing its guidance to councils. Nevertheless, a uniform system imposed centrally would deprive councillors and social work departments of the ability to tailor arrangements to local geographic and demographic circumstances.

Particularly worrying is the number of significant increases in charges, by 30% to 50% in many areas, over the last three years. Since councils are undertaking to protect frontline services and the full force of the cuts is yet to be felt, these figures point to life becoming very much more difficult for people with the least protection against hard times.

Providing care and a basic quality of life for the frail elderly and those with mental and physical disabilities is an essential service. It is the duty of local government to ensure it is provided in an affordable way to those who need it.

This will be particularly challenging as the full force of public spending cuts take effect.

Councils which hope to reduce costs by sharing some functions with their neighbours must recognise that anomalous systems will cost more to administer.

One size may not fit all but all councils must recognise democratic accountability requires them to be far more transparent about policy and costs to both service users and council tax payers.