Disabled care home residents evicted in charity’s dispute with councils

Exclusive: Leonard Cheshire says it can no longer afford to subsidise care services inadequately funded by councils

Severely disabled care home residents are being evicted in a series of disputes between one of the UK’s best-known care charities and a number of local authorities that the charity has accused of refusing to meet the soaring costs of care.

In the latest sign of the UK’s deepening social care crisis, Leonard Cheshire said it had taken the drastic step of evicting vulnerable residents with complex disabilities because council funders had refused to meet fee increases that reflected the rising costs of wages, energy and food.

The charity, which supports 3,000 people in 120 care services throughout the UK, said that in recent years it had spent millions of pounds subsidising care services inadequately funded by councils, but it could no longer afford to do so.

It said it had served 11 eviction notices on contracts that had been under negotiation without agreement since February. Two of these notices were rescinded after the council subsequently agreed to pay uprated fees. About 12 of the charity’s residents nationally face eviction orders.

The eviction threat has brought into focus the unsustainable reliance of local authority-funded disability care services on subsidies running into millions provided by charities. This year several charities have been funding staff pay rises from their own reserves in order to retain workers and keep care services viable.

The learning disability charity Mencap said it had not evicted any of its service users because it generally did not own the properties they lived in, but it was subsidising one in five of the state-funded care packages that it provides, which support 4,000 people, at a potential cost of millions to the charity.

“Social care desperately needs long-term investment and we cannot continue like this,” said Jackie O’Sullivan, Mencap’s director of communication, advocacy and activism. “We are relying on the goodwill of good people for the sector to stay afloat and it’s clear that the system is broken.”

One physically disabled Leonard Cheshire resident said he had felt trapped in the middle of a game of hardball between the charity and his council funder after being told by his care home manager last month that he faced eviction.

Keith Harris, 47, who is paralysed from the neck down and requires a 24-hour care presence, said he blamed persistent central government underfunding of social care for his predicament. “There needs to be an NHS level of funding for social care; it needs to be treated like a national treasure too,” he said.

Harris, a keen sailor who uses a tongue switch to operate his chair, computer and boat, said the 30-day notice of his eviction came out of the blue last month from the managers of his Leonard Cheshire care home in Somerset.

He had been resident at the home for more than a year, after moving to be closer to his family, when he was told that Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council, which funds his £90,000-a-year care package, was refusing to pay the uprated cost of his care.

He said: “There was no discussion with me about what I wanted or my needs. I was never part of the discussion and it had been going on without me for eight months.”

At the 11th hour, agreement was reached between Leonard Cheshire and BCP, and the eviction threat was withdrawn. Harris believes this was because of pressure put on the council by his family, who had vigorously lobbied local politicians, and an intervention by Harris’s local MP, James Heappey.

A BCP spokesperson said: “We have been working with Leonard Cheshire for several months to agree increased fee levels for their services and were disappointed that they threatened eviction in this case. However, we have reached agreement with the provider on funding and have apologised to the family for any distress caused.”

The evictions are examples of the increasingly common phenomenon of “contract handbacks”, where care providers stop delivering a care service because they believe the level of council funding they receive no longer guarantees basic safety and quality standards. Nearly two-thirds of English councils have reported contract handbacks in their area this year.

Although any evicted residents are unlikely to become homeless – their council or NHS funder has a duty to provide alternative care – there are concerns that moving will disrupt the care of vulnerable service users, and that cheaper alternative arrangements will inevitably be of poorer quality or based far away from their family support network.

Campaigners said the uncertainty and emotional pressure experienced by disabled, learning disabled and autistic residents and their families as a result of eviction threats was unacceptable. Fazilet Hadi, the head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “Keith’s story is a stark example of the high human cost borne by disabled people, as a direct result of the government’s persistent failure to adequately fund social care.”

Leonard Cheshire said removing council-funded residents from its homes was a “last resort” but it was left with no choice because its own financial viability was threatened by the failure of some local authorities to agree to uprated fees. It said it would never end support for residents without a viable alternative in place.

A spokesperson for the charity said the situation reflected years of chronic underinvestment in social care. “Councils urgently need more funding from the government to prevent situations like this arising. Social care providers are facing huge rising costs and as a charity were simply not able to subsidise placements,” he said.

Leonard Cheshire specialises in providing care for people with physical and learning disabilities and autistic people. Its residential care packages can require detailed 24-hour care, often with multiple highly skilled carers in attendance. The average package costs £85,000 a year but can go as high as £150,000.

The charity, set up by the RAF hero Leonard Cheshire after the second world war, said some councils had refused to contract fee upratings despite unprecedented increases in the costs of staff wages, energy and fuel costs this year. One unnamed council has now in effect frozen any increases to contract values for three years in succession.

Although care providers are careful to acknowledge that councils are mainly acting in good faith and are severely restricted by the financial pressures, privately they say a handful of authorities are not. One council that was refusing to fund properly costed care contracts was described as being “out of touch with reality”.

For years, Leonard Cheshire and many other large disability charity providers, including Mencap and United Response, have between them propped up specialist care services to the tune of millions of pounds in order, they say, to protect the quality of the services they provide.

A government spokesperson said: “We have prioritised health and social care in the autumn statement, with up to £7.5bn available over the next two years to support adult social care services and improve access to care for the most vulnerable in our society – the biggest funding increase in history.

“Our annual domestic recruitment campaign, Made With Care, is encouraging people to take up a career in adult social care and we are also investing £15m to increase international recruitment.”

Contributor

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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