Adult social care system ‘progressively failing to deliver’

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

Faults found during ombudsman investigations are often not due to errors caused by staff working under pressure but are increasingly because of measures employed by squeezed councils and care providers.

The ombudsman’s annual review of social care complaints – covering both councils and independent care providers across England – found fault in 72% of the complaints it investigated last year (2019-20: 69%).

It said the percentage increase was a continuation of a ‘relentless rise’ over the last decade in the proportion of cases in which care users and their families had been let down by services.

In 2020-21 the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman received 2,033 complaints and enquiries about adult social care (2019-20: 3,073). This included 270 about independent providers, where the person arranged and paid for their own care. It received and decided fewer complaints about adult social care than the previous year because of Covid-19, it said.

It made 1,642 individual recommendations to put things right in 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.

‘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,’ said  ombudsman Michael King.

‘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.’

Early signs from the ombudsman’s completed cases, and those it continues to receive, about Covid-19 suggest the sector overall responded well. However, what the data also suggest is the pandemic intensified existing issues rather than creating new ones.

Adult social care providers are not required by law to signpost to the ombudsman’s service, even though it is part of the statutory complaints process. ‘This allows some weaker businesses to undermine the market and disempower their consumers by not doing so,’ the report said. ‘To stop this from happening we believe mandatory signposting to our service should be introduced for all care providers.’

Stephen Chandler, ADASS president, said: ‘Whenever older and disabled people, carers and families do not experience the high-quality care and support that they expect, it is essential that their concerns are listened to and addressed.

‘We welcome this report. The ombudsman is right to stress the importance of learning from such cases and we support the call for greater awareness of how to express concerns.’