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Fears over changes to home care

AT RISK: Campaigners fear care services wont withstand council cuts

AT RISK: Campaigners fear care services wont withstand council cuts

Charities and providers fear changes to homecare services for thousands of disabled and elderly people in Lancashire are being driven by cost cutting rather than improving quality.

Lancashire County Council is looking at reducing the number of companies it uses to give domiciliary support to nearly 5,600 people.

These services are provided by a mix of 129 local and national, private and not-for-profit organisations, employing some 4,500 staff.

County Hall chiefs want to reduce this number to around 30, which they say will help ensure consistently high quality support, minimise staff travel time and lead to better terms and conditions for workers.

But critics of the move believe smaller groups with a “tried and tested” record of providing excellent care will be unable to compete with large agencies, and could even go out of business.

Around 150 companies are expected to tender for a position on a new ‘preferred providers’ list.

A director of one of the agencies, who did not wish to be named, said: “This is going to have a massive impact on a lot of smaller companies out there, who are providing a good value service and looking after service users like they would their own family.

“If they go down this route you’re going to be getting somewhere in the region of 20 to 30 bigger agencies, that have a large infrastructure and could probably charge the council less.

“But the personal touch of the care provision could be lost, because people will be more of a number to them.

“If you gave me a list of our service users I could tell you what street they live on and a bit about them. I take pride in that.

“I personally would prefer a smaller organisation looking after my parents.

“There could also be capacity and safeguarding issues.”

In the existing set-up, the council has a fixed hourly rate of how much it pays for care of £11.96.

Providers have now been invited to submit their own price, with a breakdown of costs including wages, administration, travel and training, and operating profit.

If a firm fails to make it on the list, a successful bidder could request its staff be transferred over under TUPE regulations.

The director said: “The council want to encourage the living wage and to abolish zero hour contracts.

“Because our pricing structure might be more than a national provider can charge, we might not be successful on getting on that list.

“Around 80 per cent of our work is commissioned by LCC. If we lose it, would that make us a viable business? It’s unlikely.”

Mel Close, chief executive of Disability Equality North West, which helps people choose providers, called for more consultation with service users.

She said: “When you get to the core of it, this is about price. It will be about who can do the job they want cheapest.

“They are going from a model that has 129 providers that people have tried and tested and are happy with, to something that shows who can do it for the cheapest prices.

“Why are they not asking the users, who know which of these services are good services, what they think?”

Under the plans the county would be divided into seven zones, with three to six providers working in each area.

The council has yet to decide how many zones or what volume of business any one provider can win.

Ms Close said: “Unit price will come out higher for smaller providers when they factor in wages and training. I think they are just going to get squeezed out.

“We all know what happens when things get competitive - you lose the personal touch and it’s just about numbers, not about quality.”

However, County Hall chiefs insisted they would prioritise quality over cost, and consider service users’ experiences.

Coun Tony Martin, cabinet member for adult and community services, said: “Homecare providers and the county council agree we need to reduce the number of agencies operating within Lancashire, and we are working closely with the industry to establish what an appropriate number would be. We will then put the contracts out to tender.

“While reducing the number of contracts for homecare would save on administrative costs, the overall cost of any new agreement would largely depend on how providers bid.

“We recognise that some people may have concerns about the proposals and that any changes will need to be managed sensitively.

“However, in the longer term, we believe the new agreements will lead to an even better quality of service, for example by improving consistency in areas such as staff training and by reducing travel time.

“While we are proposing to reduce the number of providers, the overall number of carers needed to meet the demand for services is unlikely to change significantly, so these important jobs will remain in the local economy.”

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