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Call for transparency in enacting of 'easements' of Care Act duties

Concern raised suspension of social care duties during coronavirus happening beyond seven authorities giving formal notice

care act, easement, coronavirus act, service users

Professional Social Work magazine - 13 May, 2020

Social workers, people with disabilities and legal experts called for more transparency in how councils are enacting 'easement' of duties under the Care Act during coronavirus crisis.

Powers introduced in the Coronavirus Act allow for local authorities to temporarily suspend statutory care and support responsibilities unless doing so breaches human rights.

The government says the emergency measure is only intended to be used when staff depletion due to illness or increasing demand on social care makes it impossible to comply with Care Act duties without putting lives at risks. So far only seven authorities have adopted it one of which - Birmingham - has since dropped it.

But Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “Our help line is taking calls from people across England who are having their care packages cut with or without easements. They aren’t being transparent.”

Hadi said people with disabilities and serious health conditions needed more not less support during coronavirus.

“The government has said if you are disabled or have a medical condition that makes you more vulnerable we want to put a ring of protection round you during coronavirus. Well this doesn’t feel like protection.”

She added the 145 authorities out of the 152 total that hadn’t adopted easements were still legally bound to adhere to the Care Act.

Anne Pridmore, director of Being the Boss, a support group for disabled people, said: "I am hearing from lots of people who are saying their local authority are cutting their payments and they are not from councils that have adopted easements."

Inclusion London, which supports more than 70 organisations representing disabled people, also expressed concern.

Rachel O’Brien, an independent living officer for the charity, said: “From our sources we have heard of local authorities who are refusing to carry out long awaited assessments, or send social workers to people’s homes to update financial assessments and reviews even when the charges service users have been paying are increased.”

England’s joint interim chief social worker for adults Mark Harvey recently voiced concern at local authorities using the pandemic to informally reduce services.

In a tweet he cautioned: “Getting feedback from people with lived experiences that social workers are saying they can’t act because of COVID and ‘easements’. Please make sure you follow the Care Act and professional responsibilities (in a safe way). Only seven local authorities have eased so chances are yours hasn’t.”

Disability Rights UK and civil rights group Liberty have issued statements opposing the reduction of care duties allowed for within the Coronavirus Act. Law firm Rook Irwin Sweeney is challenging Derbyshire’s adoption of the easements. It claims the council – and some of the other authorities using the easements – have failed to evidence they had met the threshold for doing so based on government guidance.

BASW England, said it was “concerned about the lack of governance and accountability” around Care Act easements.

National director Maris Stratulis said: “The absence of information relating to local responses means the impact of any changes implemented as a result COVID-19 cannot be properly understood at a local or national level.

“The ethical framework issued by the Department for Health and Social Care highlights the importance of transparency yet evidence as to how citizens and communities are being consulted about decisions being made is not readily available.”

She added: "The lack of available, accessible information about the actions and decisions being made by local authorities raises serious questions about transparency, openness and accountability. These are unprecedented times and if the rationale for implementing Care Act easements was shared in the public domain there would be more collective understanding.” 

Belinda Schwehr, chief executive of CASCAIDr, a charity providing legal advice to people about rights to assessment and care funding, said many local authorities were already non-compliant with the Care Act before the pandemic.

“There is clear evidence from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman that councils were breaching the Care Act,” she said.

“If they are carrying on doing the same thing as they were doing before in terms of process and approach, then many should be adopting the easements.”

Schwehr said ‘Three Conversations’ model of needs assessment, focusing on strengths and community assets, were being “thinned out” at some places, with assessments done online or on the phone, based on “trust”, unclear criteria and for very short term periods.

“Our concern is there is scope for people to be assessed inconsistently, making it much more of a lottery dependent not only on one’s postcode but who you get on the day,” she said.

Schwehr highlighted an example of a service user receiving a letter saying the direct payment rate for the care of her son was to be reduced by £5 an hour.

“You can’t change someone’s care package without doing a proper revision exercise, with involvement and advocacy and some rational thought about the evidence base. Section 27(2) of the Care Act [stating the person and carer must be involved in any revised care and support plan] hasn’t been touched by the coronavirus legislation. An existing care plan can’t be changed by managerial edict.”

Schwehr also warned against councils assessing a person’s care needs are being met just because a family member is now at home full time during lockdown.

She said: “I have nothing against people being dedicated to caring, but it’s wrong to be made to be a partner’s intimate personal carer just because you are there.”

Schwehr stressed the ethics and values in standing up for people’s rights underpinning social work were now more important than ever.

“The easements have done one good thing which is to put the principal social worker right up there alongside the director of service - they have to be the moral conscience of the organisation.”

With the UK almost undoubtably heading into recession, there is concern that local authorities that have struggled to fulfil statutory duties during years of austerity will face new pressure on already limited resources to support vulnerable groups..

Rhidian Hughes, chief executive of Voluntary Organisations Disability Group said: "The easements will clearly be made when councils are facing significant pressures. What we don't know is how close these councils and others are in relation to section 114 notifications when an authority is effectively bankrupt.

"The easements and the section 114s could risk a perfect storm in relation to essential care and support services for older and disabled people."

Hughes said it was vital in the longer term to "shine a light" on what was happening on the ground to ensure "hard-won rights and entitlements don't slip away".

The seven authorities that have adopted the easements are Sunderland, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Solihull, Derbyshire and Coventry.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.