Campaigners blame Welsh free care reversal on narrow research remit

Charities claim false assumptions about the level of need lay behind the Welsh assembly government’s decision to reverse an election pledge to provide free care. Derren Hayes reports

Disability and older people’s charities have roundly condemned the Welsh assembly government’s decision to scrap a manifesto pledge to introduce free home care for disabled people (Disability groups condemn Welsh government’s U-turn on free care, 23 February).

In addition to claiming the U-turn will leave many disabled people languishing in poverty, campaigners also believe the remit set for the research into the case was too narrow.

While none will say it publicly, some believe this was done deliberately to undermine the viability of a free care policy.

The study, carried out by Professor David Bell of the University of Stirling, found the additional annual cost of the policy could reach £103m by 2015. It bases its findings largely on the high levels of disability and informal caring in Wales and indications of a substantial amount of unmet existing need.

Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, says the research focused too much on the costs of delivering care and failed to take account of the wider costs of running the current system.
She explains: “It sets out how much local authorities spend on providing services and how much money they raise through charging (£22m) – but what it doesn’t say is how much they spend to run the charging system, such as doing financial assessments and collecting money.”

She adds that the research only took into account the views of local authorities – it surveyed them on their current demand and spending levels – and did not speak to users or other stakeholders.

“It doesn’t set out what the wider benefits of the policy may be on people’s well-being and reducing spending in other areas of the health service,” Davies adds.

The research shows that one in 10 people in Wales provide informal care to a person aged 65 and over, substantially higher than other parts of the UK.

Of this group, 37 per cent provide more than 20 hours of care a week, compared with 26 per cent in Scotland and England. To compound this, Wales has the highest number of carers in full-time work.

The study concludes that these factors combined with a free care policy could see a shift from informal to funded care. According to its projections, free care would cost an  extra £60m in 2006, but by 2015 it would be adding £75m to the care bill. In a worst case scenario this could reach £103m by 2015.

Health and social services minister Dr Brian Gibbons cited the upper figure in his justification for the policy reversal.

However, Sarah Stone, campaigns manager at Age Concern Cymru, says there is no evidence of a shift from informal to formal care in Scotland, where free personal care has been available to older people for four years.

Alison Goldsworthy, policy and campaigns officer for Leonard Cheshire Cymru, agrees, saying the fact that more Welsh carers work full-time does not mean they will necessarily take greater advantage of free care.

Campaigners also say the report’s negative findings are in contrast to Joseph Rowntree Foundation research last month into free personal care in Scotland, which found it had created a “fairer system without undue extra public spending”.

Stone says there is a need for more research, but Goldsworthy is not convinced: “Maybe some alternative research could be produced but would it have the resources of the assembly government report or Prof Bell’s authority? Would it be something the government would have confidence in?”

Instead, she says, organisations should keep lobbying on the issue especially in the run-up to next year’s assembly elections.

However, the assembly government says the Scottish report addresses a different policy – free personal care in all settings for older people – in a different context. A spokesperson says: “The Welsh situation is significantly different to elsewhere in the UK, including higher reported levels of disability, all of which have a bearing on the costs.”

She says the Welsh research was “a technical costing exercise not an evaluation of the policy.”

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