Councils have prioritised recruitment and training in their use of a £25m government grant to help manage the ten-fold rise in Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards caseloads triggered by the Cheshire West judgement, Department of Health analysis suggests.
The judgement, handed down in March 2014, effectively lowered the threshold for cases needing authorisation under the Dols. Local government leaders argue the ruling has created around £172m a year in extra costs. In March this year the government announced it would provide £25m extra funding in 2015-16 to help councils manage the pressures, but insisted the cash would be a one-off.
Boosting BIA numbers
The DH analysis of how the £25m was spent, based on a sample of 57 local authorities, found most (90%) councils used their slice of the funding to hire more staff. Recruitment of best interests assessors (BIAs), the group of, mostly, social workers trained to coordinate Dols cases, was cited by 70% of councils. Two-thirds said they had (66%) hired additional admin staff to assist Dols teams.
A number of councils recruited more BIAs by training up their own social workers to the role, with some formally linking the BIA role to internal pay and promotion scales in a bid to improve uptake, the DH said. More than half (54%) had boosted BIA numbers by drafting in independent BIAs, who are paid a fee for each assessment completed.
Almost three-quarters of the local authorities (72%) said they’d used some of the funding for training, including for BIAs, social workers and care providers. A quarter of councils used the cash to increase the pool of senior staff to sign-off Dols applications after becoming concerned at “bottlenecks” building up at that stage of the process.
Lorraine Currie, Adass lead for Dols, said the funding had helped local authorities but warned that the pressure on Dols teams was continuing to increase.
“The £25m has had some impact. There are more BIAs out there and there are some good initiatives going on locally. That all helps,” she said.
“But the huge backlogs of cases are still growing and because this was one-off funding, it’s hard for councils to commit to taking on lots more BIAs or social workers as those decisions are not one-off costs. So the funding’s helpful but it doesn’t address the bigger issue, which is the ongoing year-on-year burden.”
In a sign of the immense pressure on Dols teams, the latest official figures show that 40% of the 137,540 Dols applications made in 2014-15 had not been signed off by the end of the financial year. Of the Dols applications that had been signed off, only 56% were completed within the 21-day statutory time limit.
Wider workforce issues
Currie said that, as well as creating funding pressures for councils, the Supreme Court ruling had also raised wider workforce issues that local authorities and trainers were grappling with.
“Even if the money’s there to recruit them, do we have enough BIAs out there? Everyone has responded to that challenge. Councils are putting more of their social workers through BIA training. Universities are putting more cohorts on or running intensive courses. But it can still take a long time to get a BIA through, even with the shorter courses, and we also know some areas are struggling to recruit BIAs.”
The situation has left many councils reliant on the independent BIA market, where the competition for assessors has seen some local authorities offer up to £600 per assessment.
In an effort to prevent local bidding wars from driving up costs, some groups of local authorities have worked together to cap payments to external BIAs at £300 per assessment. Currie told Community Care that Adass and the LGA are also considering introducing a national protocol on the use of independent BIAs.
In a related development, the government has moved to stop a gap opening up in the regulation of BIA training providers.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt had delegated responsibility for scrutinising and approving new BIA courses to The College of Social Work. The College closed in September due to a lack of funds. In a letter sent to Dols leads last week, the DH said it had taken the scheme “in-house” as an interim measure and more information on a permanent home for the programme would be available at the end of the year.