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Cost of free social care 'unquantifiable'

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Senior local government figures are calling for urgent talks with the Department of Health amid fears that Labour’s proposed National Care Service will commit councils to future funding burdens that are impossible to quantify.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown used his conference speech to announce free home care for those “in highest need” if Labour won the general election.

The government has estimated the plan will cost an additional £670m annually, with councils expected to contribute £250m through efficiency savings.

If £670m is split between the 350,000 people Labour estimates would become entitled to free care, this equates to £37 per person per week. The actual distribution of this money is impossible to predict because of the range of different payments made by partial and full self-funders.

The DH also acknowledges there are “probably more” people who meet the criteria for free care but are unknown to the system.

A source close to the prime minister told LGC new council responsibilities would be compensated for by removing existing work on a “one in, one out” basis.

But Association of Directors of Adult Social Services president Jenny Owen warned: “The savings we’re having to find are just to balance the bottom line. This will create enormous pressures because we’ll have to save more.

“We’d have to work very carefully with the Department of Health to understand how this is calculated. If you ask detailed questions, this starts to unravel.”

Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adults and health services at the Improvement & Development Agency, said: “We very much hope the DH will sit down with us and share their figures and make sure this doesn’t become an unfunded burden for local authorities.”

LGC understands significant variation exists in the average weekly cost of care provided in the home from council to council.

This raises questions over whether the existing commissioning system – with councils buying care from private providers at varying rates – would withstand the reforms.

Ms Owen said: “Providers are going to find this quite interesting – we’re very good at keeping costs down, but if this is an entitlement, then who negotiates the hourly rates?”

Local Government Information Unit centre for service transformation head Amelia Walker said it was unclear how a revised funding formula would work, as the way people used home care fluctuated.

This meant any calculation of council burdens would only be based on a “snapshot” of provision patterns.

She also questioned how the scheme – an interim arrangement – would sit alongside proposals in the social care green paper for an insurance-based system: “It becomes incoherent to say there’s a certain group that doesn’t have to pay.”

Corporate director of adult and community services at Barking and Dagenham LBC Anne Bristow said: “The devil will be in the detail as we don’t know how this will impact on us yet. There are more questions than answers.”

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