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Rise in Ombudsman complaints ‘reflects failing social care system’

The gulf between what the public expects and what it actually gets, when it comes to adult social care, has been starkly illustrated in the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s latest annual review of complaints.

The Ombudsman’s annual review of social care complaints, covering both councils and independent care providers across England, shows the service found fault in 72% of the complaints it investigated last year.

This percentage of upheld cases is greater than the previous year (69%) and shows a relentless rise over the last decade in the proportion of cases in which care users and their families have been let down by local services.

The faults the Ombudsman finds in its investigations are often not due to one-off errors caused by staff working under pressure, but are increasingly caused by the measures employed by councils and care providers to mitigate the squeeze on their resources.

Michael King, local government and social care ombudsman, said: ‘Viewed through the lens of complaints from the public, and our impartial findings, the adult social care system is progressively failing to deliver for those who need it most.

‘Increasingly it is a system where exceptional and sometimes unorthodox measures are being deployed simply to balance the books – a reality we see frequently pleaded in their defence by the councils and care providers we investigate.

‘At a time of such pressure, it is now more important than ever to listen to public concerns in the form of complaints: they provide free intelligence to spot problems and drive improvement.

‘Following on from the recent government announcement, I hope this report and the evidence it contains can help contribute to the debate about what a more sustainable care system will look like in the future.’

Last year (April 2020 – March 2021), councils and care providers operated under the fast-evolving backdrop of Covid-19.

Early signs from the Ombudsman’s completed cases, and those it continues to receive, about Covid-19 suggest the sector overall responded well to the unprecedented challenges it faced. However, the data also suggests that the pandemic intensified existing issues rather than created a raft of new ones.

In 2020-21 the Ombudsman received 2,033 complaints and enquiries about adult social care. This included 270 about independent care providers, where the person arranged and paid for their own care.

As in all areas of its casework, last year the Ombudsman received and decided fewer complaints about adult social care than the previous year because of the disruption caused by Covid-19.

The Ombudsman made 1,642 individual recommendations to put things right in adult social care investigations last year, of which around a third (546) were aimed at improving services for everyone.

Common examples of service improvements include reviewing policies and working practices, training staff and changing public information.

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Responding to the review, Cllr David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said the upcoming spending review should be used to provide desperately-needed new funding for the care sector.

‘Councils and care providers have been doing all they can to keep vital care and support services going over the last year, which were already severely stretched before the pandemic.

‘As this report rightfully highlights, coronavirus has exacerbated pre-existing pressures in the social care system, primarily caused due to underfunding.

‘It is right that providers continue to work with the Ombudsman in its investigations, to make improvements to their services. We also need to apply the lessons learnt from our response to Covid-19 in any future reforms.

‘The government’s recent social care plan has some potential promise on charging reform, but has left open many more questions which need answering urgently.

‘The spending review should be used to set this plan straight and provide upfront, desperately needed new funding to meet immediate demands and pressures in our care system so that people can live their best life.’

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said the government will ensure Local Authorities have access to sustainable funding for core budgets at the Spending Review.

DHSC expect local authorities to ensure providers are offering good quality care, improving workforce conditions, and are investing in services and new innovations. This additional funding will ensure we are building our future social care system from sustainable foundations.

The spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to the delivery of world-leading social care and the new £5.4 billion funding for the sector will put in place comprehensive reforms that are sustainable and fit for the future.

‘To support the sector through this global pandemic we have provided over £2 billion in specific funding for adult social care, in addition to more than £6bn that has been made available to local authorities to address pressures on their services.

‘We continue to work with the sector on social care reform and will publish further details in the White Paper later this year.’

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