A council has been criticised for instructing its social workers to make “blanket reductions” to respite support for carers without first assessing their needs.
Knowsley council decided to cut the hours it offered for respite care in order to make budgetary savings. Social work teams were told that the maximum annual amount of respite they could award was four weeks. The policy was applied regardless of the individual needs of carers.
The Local Government Ombudsman warned that councils must ensure care provision is determined by an individual assessment of need, even in times of financial pressure, and told the council to review its process for allocating respite care.
The ombudsman’s report said that the council acknowledged “the instruction given to social work teams about the maximum of four weeks respite had been too rigidly applied and without proper regard to needs and any discretion that could be exercised”.
The situation was uncovered after the ombudsman was contacted by a couple who care for their sister who has learning disabilities and dementia.
The couple complained that their respite care allowance had been halved by the council from eight weeks a year to four, without social workers first conducting a needs assessment.
The ombudsman found that in March 2013, the council was required to make a saving equivalent to 278 weeks of respite care in the 2014-15 financial year.
It did not produce a policy document on the provision of respite care, but told social work teams that the maximum annual amount of respite they could award was four weeks.
A social worker told the complainants that their respite would be reduced to four weeks and that the change in policy affected all service users, before visiting in April 2014.
At the visit, the couple explained they needed eight weeks respite because of their sister’s challenging behaviour. They said now that she had dementia they were struggling to cope, but the respite was still reduced to four weeks, the ombudsman’s report said.
The council did provide some emergency respite for the couple when one of them was hospitalised and unable to provide care while recovering.
In July 2015, the social worker put forward a request to panel for an extra two weeks respite, following a reassessment of the sister’s needs. The panel refused the request and so the annual respite remained at four weeks, the report said.
The couple complained to the council in August 2015, citing the refusal of extra respite, the reduction in service without re-assessment, not being treated as individuals with their own needs, not being supported by the council to care for their sister, and the council not acting in accordance with the Care Act. The council responded but did not uphold any of the complaints.
The council did also not make any mention of the changes to respite policy in its response.
The ombudsman wrote to Knowsley asking for information about the case, but instead of providing the information requested, the council sent a short response acknowledging it had reduced the respite in error and offered to settle the complaint.
The council said it would reinstate the respite to eight weeks a year, award any respite owed since the reduction had been applied, and send a letter of apology to the couple.
Further clarification was sought by the ombudsman, and the council later accepted it had reduced the respite care without carrying out a full needs assessment.
The ombudsman recommended that the council should reinstate the respite to the eight weeks, award any respite missed, send a letter of apology and review the process for the allocation of respite. The council has already carried out these recommendations.
The ombudsman also recommended that the council should provide a remedy, equivalent to the one provided to the couple in this case, to any other service users whose respite it cut without assessing their needs. This should be done within three months.
Jane Martin, the local government ombudsman, said: “Councils have a duty to assess people’s care needs and provide services at a level appropriate to those needs regardless of the limited budgets they may have. Authorities cannot simply decide to place restrictions on care without ensuring that it meets people’s needs.
“I am pleased Knowsley council swiftly recognised its error and will now be assessing how this might have affected other service users in their area. I would now encourage councils to consider my report and any implications it may have for their care provision.”
A spokesperson for Knowsley council said: “This matter dates back to a decision made in March 2014 and since this time, we have completed all of the recommendations relating to the Mr and Mrs A [the complainants] outlined by the Ombudsman.
“The council is presently undertaking a review of those service users affected by the respite changes to ensure they are aligned to their needs, as we appreciate that individual’s needs change over time. This is due to be completed by end of August 2016.
“If any changes (either an increase or a decrease) to care packages are recommended as a result of this review, these are being fully explained to the service user. We have learned important lessons from this case and we have apologised to Mr and Mrs A for the error caused.”