Councils must transform social services through preventive measures rather than simply slash budgets if they are to shield vulnerable children, families and adults from the effect of substantial government cuts over the next four years.
That was the message from social care consultants after the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that councils could see their budgets slashed by a third from 2011-12 to 2014-15 under the government’s plans to reduce the public sector deficit.
Amanda Kelly, lead social care partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said councils had to invest in evidence-based early intervention or preventive programmes for adults and children, adding that “too much is wasted on projects that add little value”.
But she warned: “The risk, however, is that we see an increase in slash and burn approaches to cost-cutting which is rather like turning off the tap rather than fixing the leak. As a result we may make the savings targets in the short-term but we are banking up a whole load of debt further down the line.”
Her position was backed by Paul Diamond, lead on children’s services at the consultancy iMPOWER, who said children’s services were “doomed” unless preventive services were protected and made much more effective, and councils funded interventions that worked.
He added: “We desperately need to break the cycle of crisis, whereby we see more and more children going into care, but more to the point coming out with low aspirations, and potentially in a position where they will be part of the future costs of [providing] benefits.”
Independent consultant Terry Hawkins, a former adult services director, said the coming cuts presented an opportunity to transform adult services fully in line with the personalisation agenda.
This would involve disinvesting from residential care and funding low-level support services, telecare and reablement services to help people regain independence, while also encouraging people to care for themselves.
He added: “The level of work you can pass back to the public is far more significant than people appreciate.”
However, he warned there would be pain, including social worker job cuts, as councils passed more responsibility to service users, families and the voluntary sector. And he said cuts of 33% may simply be too much for councils to bear, leading authorities to “batten down the hatches” and slash services, rather than transforming them.
Jeremy Cooper, iMPOWER’s adult care lead, said adult services would have to reduce in scale to meet the government’s cuts targets, but said councils could do much more to contain demand for social care.
But he said this would necessitate much closer working with the NHS, adding that it would be “impossible” for authorities to slash the £16bn English adult care budget by a third “without looking at the £100bn health system”.
However, Des Kelly, executive director of the National Care Forum, said personalisation was not enough to deliver savings of this size. He said: “I cannot see how personalisation will be sufficient to offset the demand for care in residential settings.”
And Caroline Bernard, deputy chief executive of Counsel and Care, said cuts of the magnitude suggested by the IFS were a “false economy”, and would prompt a “dramatic increase” in the number of older people struggling to support themselves. While she agreed with the need for “smarter spending” in adult care, she called on the government to provide pump-priming investment to stimulate this.
The IFS’s calculations are based on government estimates following this week’s Budget that service areas other than the NHS and overseas aid – both of which are due to receive funding increases – would face average cuts of 25% from 2011-12 to 2014-15.
However, chancellor George Osborne has indicated that education and defence will be relatively protected from cuts. The IFS has estimated that cuts of 10% for those two areas could mean reductions of 33% for councils and other Whitehall departments.