Councils losing ability to protect adult social care from significant cuts, says finance watchdog

Staff cuts have been biggest source of savings for councils with social services responsibilities, says Audit Commission

Councils are running out of room to protect adult social care from significant cuts, despite having done so since the government’s spending reduction programme began, the Audit Commission said today.

Spending on adult care in England – net of service user charges – will have fallen by 7.5% in real terms from 2011-14, compared with overall cuts across all services (bar education) of 12.1% by councils with social services responsibilities.

But the change has made adult social care an ever bigger proportion of council non-education spending – 41% in 2013-14 – making it much more difficult for authorities to give the service relative protection from cuts in future.

This is evident in the fact that while reductions in adult care accounted for 14% of council cuts from 2010-11 to 2011-12, the service will account for 52% of cuts in 2013-14.

“As social care accounts for an increasing proportion of councils’ total service spending, it will be harder to protect this service from spending reductions in the future,” said Audit Commission chair Jeremy Newman.

The 7.5% figure for is far lower than the 20% reduction in net adult social care spending from 2011-14 identified by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services through its annual budget surveys. One reason for the difference is that Adass’s figures take account of the upward impact of demographic pressures and inflation on spending before measuring the level of cuts, whereas the Audit Commission has only taken into account inflation.

The commission also found that staffing reductions had been the biggest source of savings for councils with social services responsibilities, with three-quarters (76%) saying staff cuts had made a significant contribution to overall budget reductions. The biggest impact was in county councils, where staff cuts accounted for 60% of budget reductions, but this was not broken down by service area.

The commission’s analysis also revealed that children’s social care is the only area in which councils have increased spending since 2010-11, with 1.2% growth in real terms up to 2013-14, reflecting increased pressures in child protection.

The watchdog said that councils had shown significant resilience in managing reductions in government funding since 2011 but warned that they faced challenges in the years ahead when Whitehall will deliver further cuts and demand for social care will mount.

A survey of councils’ appointed auditors identified concerns about the ability of authorities with social services responsibility to deliver on their medium-term financial plans. Forty seven per cent of auditors for unitary authorities expressed concerns about this, as did 45% for London boroughs and 42% for metropolitan authorities.

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