By Kate Brown
Funding panels have long been used in local authorities to scrutinise complex packages of care, but as Community Care’s recent research revealed, there are increasing frustrations for social workers around how these mechanisms operate, and in some cases councils are not acting in line with legal guidance.
I took part in this research because I think it is important for these practices to be brought out into the open. In my local authority, we are told the panel is not a funding panel – it is given a different name – and managers say it is a safeguard to ensure that the social worker’s judgement and social work assessment are sound.
But all requests for support must go to the panel, apart from decreases to a support package, which suggests to me the process is primarily about saving money.
Read more about funding panels and social worker experiences
One of my main concerns is there have been a few cases where I have put what is considered a low-cost care package together and the service user is assessed as not needing to pay a contribution, yet the panel still questions why they can’t pay for their own care.
The case will regularly come back from panel with a note stating that the care has not been agreed, with a set of questions or options to consider. The panel wants to know why the person is asking us to meet the need and essentially why they aren’t paying it for themselves, as well as what other options have been explored.
All of this will have already been considered before we submit the support plan to panel. We always ask the person how they are currently meeting the need, and if anyone else is helping, so it is frustrating to be asked the same questions again.
‘We have a duty’
I think the root of the issue is some managers don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the law and their main concern is really to reduce costs to the local authority. It can feel like we’re constantly in battle with managers, telling them what the law says and that what they’re asking us to do is unlawful.
But if somebody has a need or appears to have a need then we have a duty to assess that person, and if they are found to be eligible to receive support from a local authority, then we have a duty to meet that person’s eligible needs.
Managers should know the law and we as social workers shouldn’t consistently have to quote it to them.
‘Lack of transparency’
I also feel uncomfortable about the fact that these meetings, in my experience, often appear to take place without social worker input.
A lot of social workers don’t have time to attend in person because of where the panel is held geographically, and in any case we are not routinely invited to attend panel meetings. The only time we would go is if we are a new member of staff and have requested to observe a panel taking place. However, in my experience, this is a panel of around 40-50 cases – cases that are not our own – and we are not allowed to give our input.
I went once when I was new to the job. The panel was made up of team managers with a social work or occupational therapy background, but there were also two senior managers attending who do not have professional experience in social work.
They made it very clear at the beginning of the meeting that the council has money to save. They then proceeded to question every support plan and ask why the number of hours, or a certain cost, was being requested, and how these hours and costs could be reduced. If the service user was requesting a direct payment, the senior managers wanted them to consider in-house care provision instead.
It felt very much focused on cost, but care and support planning is supposed to be person-centred, based on needs, and not what these managers think a person should have. The social worker works in collaboration with the service user to decide how their eligible needs should be met – that’s how it should work.
The panel decision-making process also creates a lot of delay. It can sometimes take a week to get an answer after the case has been submitted, and if the package has not been agreed or there are additional questions being asked then it can take even longer and causes a lot of extra work.
There have been cases where it’s taken three or four weeks to get a package approved, because it keeps getting sent back every week with different questions. There is a person at the end of all this waiting to have their needs met.
All assessments and support plans go to team managers for approval and then go to panel, where they are looked at again by the very same people who approved them in the first place. In my view, these approvals could be made locally, which would allow social workers and team managers to have conversations and reduce the inherent delay the panel process causes. The current set-up is frustrating for the social worker and the service user, and in some cases is not in line with the Care Act guidance.
Kate Brown is a pseudonym. She is an adults’ social worker