The recession: Social care’s tough choices ahead

Social care faces tough choices on funding as the recession prompts a growth in demand for services

Prime minister Gordon Brown has long been fond of quoting a statistic or two to illustrate the government’s achievements since Labour came to power in 1997. But the figures that really matter when chancellor Alistair Darling presents his pre-budget report on 9 December will be of a more malignant nature for public sector bodies that count on central government’s largesse to meet much of the increasing demand for core services – such as adults’ and children’s services departments.

These statistics make chastening reading for any government disciples: long-term unemployment at its highest level since 1997; unemployment among 18- to 24-year-olds higher than at any time since 1992; and the worst budget deficit as a proportion of gross domestic product since records began 25 years ago.

Darling’s speech is likely to spell out the cuts social care and other public sector bodies will have to make to help the government balance its books.

Budget deficit

And with economists predicting that the UK’s budget deficit will hit £175bn by the end of the 2009-10 financial year – as tax revenue falls and spending on unemployment benefits increases – these cuts could be even worse than the sector initially expected.

Adults’ services are already feeling the full force of the fallout from rising unemployment, with 80% of directors reporting rising demand for welfare advice services and 56% seeing a fall in employment opportunities for disabled people.

The impact of the recession on children’s services is more difficult to gauge, coinciding as it has with the Baby P case, which is likely to be playing a major role in the increase in referrals to local authorities and the family courts, particularly in public law cases.

Fee cuts

However, if some of the parenting support charities are to be believed, increasing numbers of families are finding themselves in difficulties due to money worries.

Meanwhile, the revelation that London Councils is seeking a 2% reduction in fees charged by some children’s services providers did not come as a huge surprise, with local authorities likely to target savings from major contracts as part of their efficiency drives. But the effects on providers could be wide-ranging, particularly for those smaller organisations with little scope to cut their own costs.

In all, social work faces a tricky balancing act in meeting the needs of service users and staff, who are likely to have their pay frozen. Although cuts are to be expected, Darling must ensure he doesn’t remove vital lifelines from the most vulnerable at a time when they need them most.

This article is published in the 3 December 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Recession fuels perfect storm for care services”

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