First the good news. The government has concluded that the
Supporting People budget is to stay. The pot, which had to be
bailed out by £400m during 2003, will remain set at
£1.8bn for 2004-5. This will come as a relief to the many
observers who were bracing themselves for a major cut.
Now the bad news. Eugene Sullivan, who conducted an independent
review into the funding debacle last year, has concluded that
£1.8bn was an excessive amount to pay for the services the
programme was initially intended to fund. He believes – with some
justification – that many local authorities have been
“cost-shunting”, commandeering Supporting People money to pay for
services that were previously paid for by other budgets. Sullivan
clearly believes that those taking liberties with the fund need to
be reined in.
As a result, all local authorities will be expected to make
efficiency savings of 2.5 per cent this year. Add this to the
non-inflationary budget, and you have a budget cut in all but name.
At the same time, those local authorities with suspiciously high
support costs will be subject to Audit Commission inspections – and
possibly to a cap on Supporting People funds. The gold rush – if it
could ever have been called that – is most definitely over.
Of course it is the government’s job to keep tight control of
taxpayer’s money, and £1.8bn is a lot by anyone’s standards.
But there are two problems with the proposals.
First, many local authorities have certainly taken the opportunity
to tap into a new funding stream. But in doing so they have simply
taken advantage of the vague Supporting People eligibility
criteria, and have followed the Office of the Deputy Prime
Minister’s instructions to develop new support services. Punishing
local authorities for following instructions seems rather unfair,
and risks undermining innovative schemes.
Second, and more importantly, there is a danger that capping
Supporting People funding will exclude some groups with high
support needs. People with mental health problems or learning
difficulties are likely to need more expensive support than other
groups. This inequality in provision could mean some people find
their chance of living independently vanishes overnight. Surely the
government can come up with a better way of keeping the lid on its