Nearly half of councils who answered a Freedom of Information request are ignoring new rules intended to protect families from paying unfair care home fees for their relatives.
This means families of the poorest pensioners could be subsidising the cost of essential care unnecessarily, according to new research from Independent Age, the older people’s charity.
The rules around care home ‘top-up fees’ were tightened last year but a Freedom of Information request sent to every council in England by Independent Age found that for the period April to June 2015, 43% did not comply with at least one of the requirements to:
- have a written agreement in place for all top-up fee arrangements in their area
- carry out annual reviews of top-up agreements as a matter of course
- ensure all top-ups in their area were arranged with the involvement of the local authority
Top-up fees are an option for care home residents whose fees are partly or fully paid by their local council. They are intended to be voluntary payments by relatives for ‘extras’ such as a larger room or a nicer view. It’s estimated that almost 50,000 older people in England have a ‘top-up’ paid towards their care costs by a relative, ranging from tens to hundreds of pounds every week.
“Too many care homes are charging pensioners’ families for care that should be free, and too many councils have been turning a blind eye to the practice,” said Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age. “The Care Act was intended to stamp out this abuse but it is clear from our research that it is still going on.”
The Care Act, which came into force in April 2015, tightened the rules by saying that top-up fees should always involve the informed consent of all parties, involve a written agreement and that arrangements should be reviewed regularly. Today’s research reveals that despite the introduction of the Act, poor practice is continuing among a significant minority of councils.
The new findings come as social care budgets are under pressure as never before. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services estimate that councils have faced reductions of £4.6 billion to adult social care budgets since 2009-10 – almost a third of net real terms spend. And while local councils on average pay £512 a week towards a care home place, analysts’ estimate that the real cost is between £554 and £625 a week.
Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of Independent Age, said: “We understand that councils are under huge financial pressure. But in a drive to find savings to social care budgets, they must not pass the burden of this ‘secret subsidy’ on to the families of poorer pensioners.
“It is only poorer pensioners who qualify for a local authority funded care home place, and yet it is their families that are being asked to make up the shortfall in care budgets. We hear all the time from families who are willing to do anything they can to ensure their elderly relatives get decent care, even if they’re struggling financially themselves. That’s why it’s so important that there are rules to make sure they do not feel pressured into paying fees unnecessarily.
“Top-up fees must always be optional, affordable and transparent. The rules introduced by the government should ensure that is the case. So it is very worrying that so many councils are still failing to follow these basic principles.”
The findings do suggest that there has been some progress since the introduction of the Care Act. A total of 48% (58 out of 122) of local authorities have written agreements in place for all top-up fees entered into since April 2015. Whereas in 2013, only 28% even had information about all top-up fees in their area, according to previous research by Independent Age.
A fifth of councils (20%) did not respond to the Freedom of Information request.