Norfolk’s council run meals-on-wheels service faces axe

Directly provided council run meals-on-wheels services are to be scrapped in Norfolk as part of a shake-up of the service which could see elderly people asked to pay more for the cost of a meal.

Norfolk County Council is proposing withdrawing from the market to tempt other providers to the county and broaden the coverage of the meals-on-wheels service which currently only offers hot meals in around half of the county.

The plans have long been on the cards, but the sting in the tale is the decision to end the annual �1.2m a year subsidy which will hit not only meals-on-wheels users but also residents of the council's housing with care schemes and is likely to see them asked to pay more of the costs of the food they buy.

Currently there are around 1069 customers receiving a meal, with around 700 of those coming directly from the county council via its in-house contractors Norse, which are then delivered by volunteers including the WRVS, and Age UK.

But this two-stage approach of cooking and delivering meals will be ended as the authority wants to switch to a commissioning only role, pointing people instead in the right direction for getting a meal directly themselves through an accredited supplier list.

The move comes as the number of hot meals provided by the authority is on the decline, and fell by 10pc last year amid complaints about a lack of choice over the food on offer and lack of flexibility over the time it is delivered, though more people were also switching over to a frozen meals service.

Customers currently pay �3.25 for a meal but the real average cost is �8.20 because the council also pays a �4.96 subsidy.

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As part of the changes this will be phased out, but while the authority accepts people could pay more, they are pinning their hopes on market forces helping to peg the costs at close to their current levels.

David Harwood, cabinet member for adult and community services, insisted the changes would mean a better service across the county.

And he said the authority was also building in extra safeguards including asking any new suppliers to provide 'well being' checks on people when they make their deliveries and a 'call for concern' initiative which means that extra help can be provided to those who need it. The council would also continue to act on behalf of the most vulnerable clients. Some people could also get extra help through their personal budgets for social care.

The authority is also hoping the voluntary teams who currently deliver the meals for the council, will be keen to switch to other forms of supporting people such as befriending schemes.

But critics fear that the cuts are the latest in the line of savage cuts in services as the council looks to stem a �155m funding blackhole., which will hit the most vulnerable hardest.

'People have told us they want more choice and control over what meals they have and when they receive them,' Mr Harwood said. 'By working with independent meal providers, our aim is that older people will enjoy a far more flexible and attractive meals service.'

Phil Wells, chief executive of Age UK Norwich, said while he accepted the subsidies must end it was important not to overlook the social role played by the service.

'For us the two areas of major concern are around the people who need help to access the food either because they are unsteady on their feet or find it difficult to handle the wrappings,' he said. 'There are people for whom the delivery itself is an important part of their day and it gives them a degree of security that there is somebody calling.'

But Labour councillor George Nobbs said the proposals were 'deliberately misleading'.

'It gives the impression they are not doing it to save money, but this is something they have been thinking about for a long time and will make the service a lot better. The changes are overwhelming. To have all these things happening at once is dreadful.'