Plea to councillors to think again on cuts to services for elderly
Council leaders have been urged to think again over spending cuts which charity bosses warn would threaten the welfare of elderly people in Norfolk and leave them isolated in their own homes.
Age UK Norfolk and Age UK Norwich say cuts of �16m in what Norfolk County Council spends on preventative care could spell the end for some services which play a vital role in ensuring the elderly retain their independence and do not end up in hospital or in residential care.
The county council agreed last year, through its �155m Big Conversation programme of cuts to reduce its preventative care budget by a third.
But the Age UK branches say while some of those cuts have already happened, the bulk of them will fall over the next two years.
That fear has prompted the charity, backed by the EDP, to re-launch its Cut Cake Not Care campaign, which urges people to ask their county councillors if they fully realise the implications of that spending cut on Norfolk's elderly population.
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The charity is worried that changes in funding for day care will mean some older people are no longer eligible for services and might not be able to afford the cost of attending increasingly market-driven services.
With the move to personal budgets, where people who are eligible for social care are given a set amount of money which they can spend how they wish, the charity fears some smaller day care providers could vanish.
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The charities say it means voluntary groups such as lunch clubs, which play a key role in ensuring elderly people get a decent meal – but also in spotting when they are unwell or have signs of dementia – could struggle for money and some could close.
Without clubs and groups such as those, a vital safety net could be lost, say charity chiefs. They say networks of support, with club members looking out for each other, would disappear.
That, says Age UK, will end up costing the taxpayer more in the long run, because those increasingly isolated people will end up needing more costly hospital treatment and residential care earlier than if their lunch clubs continued to take care of them.
More money, not less, should be spent on those preventative services, the bosses of the charity say, to stop that safety net from collapsing.
The charity has also said that the council's plans to cut �185,000 from the Quality Assurance Service – which checks on the quality of social care – would be short-sighted and irresponsible at a time when so much change is happening in how services are provided and by who.
Hilary MacDonald, chief executive of Age UK Norfolk, said: 'There are two elements which are at the heart of our concerns. One is that they are cutting quality assurance at a time when the whole social care environment is changing and you need more monitoring than ever. It makes no sense.
'The second is the cuts to prevention and to day care. The role of day care is so important. There are so many studies which prove that.
'We did our own research in West Norfolk a few years ago and what you hear time and again is how important those services are to people. 'For a large number of older people that lunch might be the only time they get out of their house each week and they really look forward to that day.
'Most of us take it for granted that we can get out and about, but that's not the case for everybody. These people would be housebound and isolated without these clubs.
'We would urge county councillors, who can still reverse these plans, to think again.'
Phil Wells, chief executive of Age UK Norwich said the first year of the cuts agreed in the Big Conversation had focused on restructuring rather than cutting services.
He said: 'To a large extent, unless you are at a day centre which closed, people have not really noticed the cuts. But people need to be aware that we have not really seen the worst of it yet. That will start over the next year and the year after that. From the council's perspective it is tempting to cut prevention funding and day care because they are not statutory services and their argument is that they need to protect those in the most need. It's a sound argument and I accept they cannot prioritise prevention services, but I do think they could look more widely, because it will come back to bite them.'
He said reassessment of personal budgets of people who currently receive day care could mean some no longer meet the criteria and would have to pay more to keep using the centres and clubs where they meet.
He said: 'There's a real issue around people with low level needs, because it will become terribly easy for them to become isolated if they do not, or cannot, pay for those services.
'It's clear the voluntary sector and community are going to be expected to pick up the pieces, but at the same time the council is cutting support to that sector.
'I think there's a case for them finding funds from elsewhere and I would argue the council could dip into its reserves because this is such a bad time.'
But James Bullion, assistant director of community care at Norfolk County Council, said savings had been carefully considered, but the reality was, with councils being given less money, tough choices had to be made.
He said: 'The question is not about should we or should we not cut preventable services. Our starting question is a choice between statutory services and discretionary prevention and we have chosen to protect statutory care, which pushes us in a direction.'
He stressed �27m more was being pumped into the care budget over the next three years, including improving a programme which helps people get back into their homes after stints in hospital.
This year an agreement with the NHS meant �5m which had to be cut from the budget was picked up by health bosses but next year will see �5m cuts made and �6m the following year. Mr Bullion said most of the savings this year would not lead to service reductions. But he said �1.5m would be taken away from contracts with voluntary groups, affecting about 25 groups out of about 250, with a similar figure the following year.
He said: 'We have gone through a process where we have looked at each contract for its relevance, the extent to which it protects vulnerable people and value for money.
'Of the �1.5m we have identified �1m which are contracts which are not so relevant as they were in the past and do not offer good value for money.' But he said some of those groups might still be able to access money through a one-off �1.5m prevention fund, called Living Well in the Community.
However, he admitted: 'We absolutely understand the concerns of the voluntary groups. This change, with personalisation and budget reductions will be painful for groups, but we have got to protect the statutory care budget.'
He said those groups would learn over the next three to four months which of them would have their contract with the council withdrawn.
And David Harwood, cabinet member for adult and community services at Norfolk County Council, said the council had been forced to make difficult decisions because less money was coming from the government. He said: 'The preventative funding is the one area of the social care budget which is not protected by legislation, so that's the only area we have got leeway with.
'We protected frontline services using the money from the NHS and we have the prevention fund which organisations can apply for.
'I can understand people's concerns and we are trying to address them as we move forward. If there is an opportunity for extra funding we will try to go there.' He added a new Norfolk Care Charter would be set up to ensure people were aware of service standards, with a 'scores on the doors' type system encouraging providers to up quality.
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