Just one in five councils have an appeals process for adult social care decisions, meaning many service users have to rely on drawn-out complaints procedures to challenge decisions, research by Independent Age has found.
Now the charity is calling on the government to introduce a statutory appeals process, distinct from the complaints procedure, to enable local authorities to quickly and fairly resolve disputes people may raise about issues such as eligibility and funding levels for care packages.
The call comes with successive governments having failed to implement provisions in the Care Act 2014 to introduce an appeals system, something Independent Age described as “unacceptable”.
Local authority complaints process ineffective
Based on a Freedom of Information request returned by 145 of England’s 152 councils, Independent Age found 19% had an appeals process, with the rest largely relying on their statutory complaints process to enable people to challenge decisions.
Independent Age’s report said the rise in the number of complaints being received and upheld by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman – to whom people can refer complaints if they aren’t satisfied with the outcome of the complaint or the council hasn’t provided them with a response within a “reasonable time”. The watchdog upheld 687 adult care complaints against local authorities – meaning that councils were found to be at fault – in 2018-19, up from 587 in 2017-18. Two thirds of all cases investigated by the ombudsman were upheld, up from 61% in 2017-18, when the number of investigations was significantly lower.
Independent Age said this showed problems were not being dealt with effectively at the local authority complaints stage. Also, it said, the complaints process was very drawn-out, with councils only expected to respond within six months, with the flexibility to delay this further if they notified the complainant.
Complaints process had ‘adverse impact on older people’s health’
The charity said the uncertainty created by the lengthy complaints process often had an adverse impact on older people’s health, and that some were deterred from complaining by the negative connotations of the word ‘complaint’.
With councils under ongoing pressures – a point highlighted by the ombudsman in explaining the rise in upheld complaints – Independent Age said it was essential that people had a means of challenging decisions quickly.
Its proposed system would require the local authority to first facilitate an “open and constructive dialogue” with the individual complaining in an attempt to resolve the issue.
The next stage would be an independent review, where the local authority appoints an a person who is not involved in the case to look at the original decision and make recommendations. The final stage is the local authority’s decision which is made in consideration of the independent reviewer’s recommendations. The whole process should take six to 11 weeks, it said.
Clear guidance for councils needed
Among the fifth of councils who did have an appeals process, Independent Age found that many could not answer questions about the number and outcome of appeals. It said this meant there needed to be clear guidance for councils in relation to how appeals were carried out, including on data collection, to ensure a consistent approach.
Independent Age’s proposals resemble those consulted on by the then government in 2015 on implementing the provisions in section 72 of the Care Act to introduce an appeals system. However, these have never been taken forward and it is unclear whether they will be included in any future reform of adult social care under this or a subsequent government.
Responding to the report, the chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, Ian Hudspeth, said: “Councils face incredibly difficult decisions over the exact nature of care and support available…Councils treat all complaints seriously and have processes in place for resolving these, including for social care.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it would set out plans for making the social care system our plans to reform the system to make it sustainable for the future in due course.
This point was reiterated by today’s Queen’s Speech, under which the government said it would “bring forward substantive proposals to fix the crisis in social care to give everyone the dignity and security they deserve”, including setting out legislative requirements.