Andrew Kaye is Head of Campaigns at Independent Age@vickysargent
Older people's charity Independent Age has been collaborating with Socitm’s Better Connected programme on two recent surveys on local authorities' presentation of social care services online. Head of Policy and Campaigns Andrew Kaye discusses the results, published May 16th.
“Information…,” it is often said, “is power”.
Perhaps there can be no clearer case where information makes such a powerful difference as in the area of care and support, which is often referred to rather opaquely as “social care”.
Independent Age is all too familiar with the problems.
Older people and family members who phone us don’t necessarily always know what “social care” is. Due to the complexity of system they certainly don’t always appreciate that it isn’t free or that it is heavily means-tested.
We hear from people who for perfectly valid reasons don’t always know about, let alone understand, the often labyrinthine rules governing who can get state support and how they might qualify for help from their local council.
And when it comes to the highly fraught moment someone comes out of hospital and needs to find a care home, or the emotional situation where a family member has to start considering a nursing home for their increasingly frail parent, the reality is that very few people know where to start.
It’s not necessarily that information isn’t out there – often, there’s quite a lot of information – but it’s not widely known about. And having put off decisions thinking about care, people start looking for it in a crisis. Put simply, people feel pretty disempowered.
This is where the Care Act 2014 was supposed to make a difference (well, in England at least).
Local authorities were placed under clearer legal duties to provide comprehensive information and advice so all local residents with care needs could make good decisions about care and support. And to start making some of those decisions in advance, armed with information about how to plan for care needs and prevent them from getting worse.
The Act was supposed to be a game-changer: information would be available so older and disabled people, together with their carers could understand how care and support services work locally, the funding options and the process to get council support. For people searching and paying for their own care, information on local care providers and independent financial advice should be available or signposted through to.
Without good information it’s hard to see how people who need care could be at the heart of decisions made about their care. So it was welcome that the new legislation placed such a high priority on local authorities’ role providing good information and advice.
The survey findings
So what do these latest survey results from Better Connected tell us and has the Care Act been the game-changer for information and advice on care that it was supposed to be?
It has to be positive that there have been improvements in how many local authorities have “good” or “very good” websites (around half), when we recall that previous social care surveys for Better Connected - in 2014 and 2015, testing council information on care homes and breaks for carers - saw only around a third of websites rated “good” or “very good”.
However, it’s still concerning that half of councils have websites which aren’t providing all the information and advice on care that they could – at least not in a way that’s particularly easy to follow or accessible.
Looking at these results, where local authorities are generally doing a better job is presenting some of the essential information: the fundamentals. The basic information so residents can find local care options and be signposted to these options, increasingly through third party websites.
Where a number of councils seem to be falling down, however, is providing the specialist information and advice which older people, those with disabilities and their carers typically need:
Only two in five councils surveyed were able to present decent information online about the financial rules that govern who can access council and support. The concern has to be, without presenting this information up-front, it will fall to individuals to have to find out for themselves what the rules on assets and incomes are, which are amazingly complex and not easy to comprehend.
Worse still, fewer than one in three councils were able to provide clarity for adults who were looking for information on how to arrange an advocate, another big new responsibility introduced as part of the Care Act. An advocate can be crucial in helping someone with reduced mental capacity or who needs help with exercising their rights to access the support they need.
Around one third of councils aren’t effectively referring to sources of advice from the voluntary sector, which is a major missed opportunity since it will often be charities, social enterprises, befriending groups and other community organisations who can provide the richer, more bespoke information and advice that local councils aren’t always set up to deliver.
And perhaps most worrying of all, only around two in ten councils who were evaluated had websites that provided clear information for carers and how they are entitled to a free assessment of their needs. This is a big problem since people providing unpaid care don’t always identify as carers and need councils to proactively reach out and highlight that they too are entitled to a needs assessment.
Not long after the Care Act was introduced, Independent Age carried out its own analysis. We found that almost a quarter (23%) of local authorities are not providing accurate online information on assessments and eligibility for adult social care. More generally, 70% could not demonstrate they were providing online information in all the areas required of them as part of the Care Act.
Things may be improving, but from our own helpline we hear how so many difficulties older people and their families face could have been avoided if information and advice had been made available earlier. It’s promising to hear there is good practice, in councils across many diverse parts of the country.
It has been more than two years since the Care Act was introduced. We hope these latest results from Better Connected help drive improved performance across all areas.
The older people's charity Independent Age provides clear, free and impartial advice on the issues that matter to older people and their families: care and support, money and benefits, health and mobility.
Reports on the Better Connected surveys are free-to-view and are linked from the survey index page on the Better Connected website.