Councils struggling to bring in social care budgets

27 Oct 10
Personal social care budgets are proving difficult for councils to introduce and threaten in-house services, the Audit Commission has found.

By David Williams

28 October 2010

Personal social care budgets are proving difficult for councils to introduce and threaten in-house services, the Audit Commission has found.

The commission’s report, Financial management of personal budgets, supports the idea of individuals being given control of buying their own services, saying it gives flexibility to people who would not otherwise have the means to choose their own care.

But the report, published today, also warns that the move puts ‘at risk’ those care services provided in-house by councils. It recommends that councils ‘reconsider their roles and relationships’, and adds that it might start to become unaffordable for councils to continue to provide their own services.

Andy McKeon, the commission’s managing director for health, told Public Finance that although personal budgets neither save money nor cost more, increasingly squeezed councils should persist with them.

‘It will be a priority, because however much money you have to spend, you want to make sure you’re spending it well and in the best possible way for users,’ he said.

‘There’s still a strong argument for personal budgets to give users greater powers and to make the money you spend more effective.’

McKeon argued that the move towards personal budgets posed a potential threat to councils’ block contracts for services. Council-provided services might no longer be financially viable if sufficient numbers of care users chose to purchase their care elsewhere.

He also said that pooled spending for mental health services, involving both health and council budgets, had been a barrier to personal budgets, because of the difficulty of ‘disentangling’ the local authority element of the funding.

The commission report says some councils will need to make a significant effort to reach the Department of Health’s 2007 target, for 30% of social care service users to be in charge of personal budgets by April next year.

The report says that the figure is currently 18% – and only 6% of all social care funding is spent through personal budgets.

McKeon said central government had done as much as it could to push through personal budgets, including investing £520m. He added that progress would vary where a significant change in culture was involved, and councils needed to adapt their commissioning strategies, administrative practices, monitoring systems and governance arrangements to consolidate the reforms.

David Rogers, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said the report was ‘somewhat outdated,’ and that councils would have made progress since the Audit Commission gathered its data.

He said a new agreement on social care reform would be published at next week’s LGA children and adult services conference.

Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary for public services at the Unite union, questioned whether councils would have the resources to increase personal budgeting. She added that people with mental health needs could ‘fall through the net’ and not be supported enough in commissioning their own services.

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