Increasing care charges for vulnerable West Sussex residents ‘unfair’
Fears about escalating care charges and worries about how they will cope prompted a group of West Sussex parents to join campaigners in a protest outside County Hall.
Wielding banners which declared ‘Proportionate charges for proportionate care’ and ‘Don’t steal our benefits’, a dozen or so souls did their utmost to spread a message which affects thousands of people across the county.
The charges are made to pay for services provided to those with care needs, either independently or in a family home, such as attending day centres or even helping with respite care.
The charges and the services vary from person to person.
In March, those charges went up – and for some people they sky-rocketed, swallowing the £67.25 per week carer’s allowance – with the debt being backdated to January.
This has piled financial worries on to people already coping with some serious challenges.
Among the protesters was Sarah Welch, whose 23-year-old son has cerebral palsy, sight problems and learning difficulties.
Sarah saw her charges rise from £37.70 per week to £73 per week – an increase she said was ‘demonising’ those in need of care
On top of that, she is faced with the backdated bill which she said could leave her and other parents having to pay thousands of pounds.
Sarah said: “It’s caused so much stress amongst us as parents and it’s extremely unfair.”
Another parent who joined the protest was Lulu Willis, whose adult son has a genetic disorder called Smith-Magenis syndrome as well as epilepsy and cerebral visual impairment.
Lulu, who used to work for the council on a casual basis, has seen her care charges rise from £5 per week to £78 per week.
And she is one of a number of people who said they only found out about the change once the decision had been made.
Lulu knew an assessment of her son’s financial needs was due – and had prepared all the relevant documentation – only to find out six weeks later that everything had been decided without her.
She said: “No one contacted me. No one asked what his outgoings were. How can you do a financial assessment with absolutely no contact? How can you do it without me being involved?”
Beccy Cooper (Lab, Worthing West) shared the story of a young woman called Saskia, who has a learning disability and lives in supported accommodation.
When told her care charges would rise from £92 to £515 a month – and that almost £1,500 in backdated payments had been taken out of her account – Saskia burst into tears.
Her mum, Bobbie, said the withdrawal left her daughter in debt.
She added: “Without my intervention, she wouldn’t have had any food that week and she wouldn’t have been able to pay her gas, electricity or water bills.”
Bobbie is also worried that the increase in charges will impact on Saskia’s independence.
She said: “The rise has left Saskia worrying whether she can continue playing football each week – and coaching a girls’ team – because of the train fare and team subscription.”
While the Care Act gives local authorities the option to charge people or not, it makes it clear that: ‘The over-riding principle is that people should only be required to pay what they can afford’.
The concern is that councils up and down the country are riding as close to the line as possible in an attempt to save money and cut costs.
While some understand the need to tighten the purse strings – after all, the government has cut funding to local authorities by around £16bn in the past decade – they are less than impressed with the way financial assessments have been handled.
Lulu has set up a group called Warrior Carers in an attempt to share information and provide support to fellow carers.
And she has heard from a number of people about being ‘passed from pillar to post’ with no idea who to talk to or how to appeal the process.
She said: “People are saying to me that if you ring up the adult social care desk, you can just leave a message but no one ever gets back to you.
“Even if we do know who to contact they are impossible to get hold of.
“I honestly feel I know more about financial reassessment than they do. One person will tell you one thing and another will tell you another.
“The impression I get is they have no processes set up for this. I just feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. That is the impression we’re getting.”
A council spokesman said: “Our charging arrangements follow national guidance and are based on an individual assessment of a person’s ability to contribute towards the financial costs of the care and support that they receive.
“All of our community customers of working age were written to earlier this year, informing them that we would be reviewing their contribution to their care costs.
“This was part of a much wider review of our adult social care finance service. This included new arrangements for the minimum income guarantee for working age community customers.
“The review highlighted that in many cases people’s financial circumstances had not been updated for a number of years.
“The increases people are facing now are primarily due to the changes in their financial position, which have only just become apparent following the recent financial assessments.
“Regardless of when an individual’s circumstances changed, any increases to their social care contributions have only been applied from January 2021.
“Very few cases that have been affected were due to the change in the minimum income guarantee.
“Some financial assessments have been able to be completed without the need to meet people face to face as, for many, the changes will be minimal and simply reflect the change in welfare benefit rates received by individuals.
“We are committed to ensuring that the Care Act 2014 requirements and the associated national guidance and local charging policy are applied appropriately, including the requirement to ensure that the financial contributions are affordable.
“We have suspended the collection of any back-dated payments from people who have challenged the findings of their financial assessment, while we consider new information presented to us including details of any disability related expenses.
“Due to the number of challenges raised, there have been a small number of cases where this suspension did not happen. In those instances, we have subsequently apologised to those affected and offered to return the payments taken. We are very sorry this happened and for the upset this caused.
“We understand this is a difficult situation and we remain committed to supporting our customers and addressing any concerns they may highlight to us regarding their circumstances and resolving these matters as quickly as possible.
“We are actively seeking to learn from these experiences to improve the service offered and the communication with customers, carers and/or their representative(s) in future.
“Anyone who is worried about meeting their contribution can speak directly with a member of the county council’s financial assessment team on 0330 222 5220 or email [email protected] who will be available to work with them on an individual basis.”
To join Warrior Carers, log on to Facebook and search for ‘Warrior Carers West Sussex’.