Social care costs see thousands chased for debton February 22, 2023 at 12:52 am

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More than 60,000 people in England faced debt collection over home care last year, BBC research finds.

Julia, who has severe mobility issues and has debts of £4,700, is pictured at home propped up by floral pillows

More than 60,000 adults with disabilities and long-term illnesses in England were chased for debts by councils last year after failing to pay for their social care support at home.

Claimants told the BBC they can’t afford the charges amid rising food and rent prices, along with the additional costs of living with disabilities.

Councils took legal action against 330 people in 2021-22.

The Local Government Association said such action was a “last option”.

Councils ask social care recipients to contribute towards the home care they receive in nearly all areas of England, but previous BBC research found charges had risen by thousands of pounds a year for some adults.

Some disabled people have now told the BBC they felt they had little choice but to live without home care, while others said they feared bailiffs being called in over unpaid debts.

Campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts said the charges were discriminatory, leaving disabled people “to live on very, very little money”.

It said financial assessments were too often rushed by stretched local authorities, and they had sometimes not been updated to include recent hikes in energy bills and rent.

In many cases, the campaign group said councils also failed to account for all the additional expenses disabled people face in maintaining their health and wellbeing, such as accessible transport, adapted clothing or special dietary requirements.

Only people who have the highest need for help, and savings or assets of less than £23,250, are eligible for council-subsidised care in England.

Paula Robinson, from Greater Manchester, says she was “shocked and distraught” to receive a letter from her council warning of potential legal action, even while she was appealing against the increased charges that drove her into £3,000 of debt.

She has ME – also known as chronic fatigue syndrome – and an endocrine disorder, and says the stress of the debt led her to question whether “life’s worth living”.

The amount the council charged for her social care package – including visits from carers who prepared meals and helped with bathing – had risen by more than £4,000 a year, from £10 a week to £93 a week.

Paula lives on benefits and says the increased charges “wiped out” her ability to pay for vitamins and physiotherapy that help ease her ME.

Eventually, the council cancelled the £3,000 debt.

But, still facing the higher charges of £93 a week, Paula decided to decline any further social care and now lives without home support.

She said this has led to a deterioration in her physical health.

“I can’t even have family to visit sometimes, because I’m too ill,” she said

Rochdale Borough Council said it uses full financial assessments to ensure payments are fair, and takes a “sensitive, case-by-case approach” to recovering debt.

Campaigner Rick Burgess pictured at the offices of Disabled People Against Cuts

Data from 79 of 152 local authorities in England – obtained by the BBC through Freedom of Information requests – shows that councils began more than 60,000 debt collection procedures against social care claimants living in the community in 2021-22.

One of those worrying about enforcement action is Julia, who has severe mobility issues and a rare skin condition, and receives 13 hours of support each week at her home in St Leonards-on-Sea.

Julia, who lives on benefits, says she is unable to afford the charges of more than £58 a week, and was taken to court last year by her local authority for a debt of £4,700.

She is now fearful that bailiffs will be used against her.

“I’m always trying to be positive, but the fight is wearing me out and making me more ill,” she said.

East Sussex County Council said the debt recovery process “will only ever begin after extensive discussions and assessments”.

Campaigner Rick Burgess, from Disabled People Against Cuts, is now calling for all councils to update claimants’ assessment to reflect the rising cost of living, and to put in place better support for those struggling with repayments.

Councillor David Fothergill of the Local Government Association, which represents councils in England, told the BBC rising demand and squeezed budgets meant councils had to collect money owed, but that legal action was a last resort.

“What councils should be doing, and I think the vast majority of councils do in the vast majority of cases, is they work with residents to find a solution [for how the debt can be settled].”

The Department of Health and Social Care said regulations ensured local authorities leave claimants with a set amount of money to live off once their social care charges have been paid – known as the “minimum income guarantee”.

The amount changes to meet different people’s circumstances. Single claimants over the state pension age currently have a protected income of £194.70 a week.

Approaches to social care charging differ across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where expected contributions are lower than in most councils in England.

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