We believe that the closure of 20 council-run residential care homes in Devon is a microcosm of all that is shoddy, disreputable and anti-democratic in local government.
We believe that what we find here are:
- A pre-determined decision
- Attempts to avoid accountability
- A sham consultation
- Half-truths, distortions and outright lies
- Contempt for process and electorate
- Contempt for the people in their care
Council budgets are decreasing during this age of austerity, but increases in council tax will result in Bad News, the most distressing effect of which (for councillors) would be at the ballot box.
Devon County Council (DCC) needed to make cuts in order to save councillors’ seats. There’s a potential paltry saving to be made by closing care homes, and they’re an easy target, but more importantly it’s an ideological decision. Tories don’t like providing services – that’s for the private sector. Let’s get these homes shut down under the guise of austerity; of painful decisions made for the greater good.
It’s interesting to note that council-run homes had been prevented from taking on new long-term residents from around November 2013. Why would that be?
The proposal was announced in February 2014, to be followed by a consultation period. Councillors endlessly repeated that no decision had been made – that they were just asking the question. But in public meetings there was only one major argument put forward: council-run care homes were exorbitantly expensive to run compared to placing people in private care homes. It was not sustainable, and it was clearly insane to keep them running. Distressed relative after distressed relative stood up to say how much their loved ones enjoyed their homes; that they’d been there for years; that the care was second to none; that their Mum had lived in this town all her life and there was no other local option; that the frailer residents would be badly affected by any move; that these were their homes. Councillors and senior DCC staff just smiled and nodded sympathetically, and repeated the mantra: they’re too expensive.
There was no serious attempt to collect the thoughts of residents and their next of kin. The meeting at Charlton Lodge, Tiverton, when the proposal and consultation were announced to residents and carers, was a shambolic farce. It was led by Jan Ingram, Assistant Director of Adult Social Care Provision. She was unable to organise a meeting where residents could even hear what she was saying, let alone fully comprehend what was being said. Some residents walked out in disgust; some plaintively repeated that they couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand. Many residents did not have relatives to support them at this meeting because no attempt had been made to inform them in advance. The whole thing was distressing for residents, relatives and staff. One lady resident repeatedly asked ‘where will I go?’ She had no relative with her to push the point; and staff had no answers. In one-to-one talks at the end of the meeting Jan Ingram reinforced to relatives that council-run homes were too expensive and needed to go. Our perception was there was clearly no question in her mind that they would go.
At a public meeting in Bampton, organised by a Bampton Town Council concerned for the local Barnhaven home, the sole representative of the closure proposal was Cllr Polly Colthorpe. Cllr Colthorpe smirked behind her hand as people spoke up for the quality of care at the home and about their fears in finding local alternatives. She repeated the cost mantra and told her constituents in no uncertain terms that she would not support them in fighting the proposals. Cllr Colthorpe was indifferent to any argument. We learned that distressed residents had made posters for Barnhaven’s windows – ‘Save Our Home!’ – but that DCC care home managers had ordered the posters to be taken down.
DCC had determined that the decision would not be a collective one, but that Cllr Stuart Barker, as Cabinet Member for Adult Services, would take the decision alone, based on the consultation. This would naturally help to avoid unfortunate publicity around Tory councillors voting to evict old people from their homes. Wise to this ruse, opposition councillors forced a rare emergency general meeting to debate the proposals and put forward a motion to slow the process and consult more widely. There were many impassioned speeches from opposition councillors and from the public. Not one Tory councillor spoke. When the vote came, they lurched into life and all voted down the motion. They also voted not to make their personal vote a matter of record.
During the consultation it became clear that the argument for closing the homes was based largely on two figures. According to Cllr Barker, it was costing £903 per week to run a bed in council home, compared with the £426 per week they were paying to private care homes. These figures did not stand up to even the most cursory examination.
£906 was arrived at by dividing the total cost of running council care homes by the number of residents as at early 2014. There are two gross distortions hidden in this innocuous calculation.
1) The homes had been forced to stop taking on new residents so were running significantly under capacity. Charlton Lodge in Tiverton was by then caring for 18 people against a capacity for 30.
2) The income from fee-paying residents was ignored. Many residents were partly or even fully funding themselves.
Meanwhile, the figure of £426 was greeted with universal disbelief by the relatives of residents who were only too aware of the amounts being asked by private homes. While it’s not unreasonable to assume that DCC gets a discount on the normal tariff, the notion that £426 represents an average cost per person per week is scarcely believable. DCC had stated that residents would be moved to whichever home best suited them, regardless of cost. This figure suggests that in actuality residents need be sold to the lowest bidders.
We talk more about these figures here. Very little of what we’ve been told about costs actually add up.
Overall savings figures have been bandied about, but there is no clear, detailed financial analysis available to support these. Cllr Barker, Cllr Colthorpe and Jan Ingram have all told us that staff costs are the main problem. However, no attempt has been made to renegotiate any of these, or to acknowledge the fact that some enhanced packages arising from an earlier failed attempt to sell off the homes as a going concern are coming to an end.
The published impact assessments raised concerns straight away. Superficial, high-level statements, incompetently copy-and-pasted between documents to create one assessment per home. What was notably absent from these was any assessment of the health and wellbeing of the individual people involved – just the process. DCC has form in this area. In 2012 a judicial review found that the Council failed to meet its Public Sector Equality Duty and properly consider how its actions would impact on vulnerable groups such as people with dementia. The claimants were successful in their argument that the Council failed to meet its Public Sector Equality Duty and properly consider how its actions would impact on vulnerable groups such as people with dementia. The judgement concluded that DCC’s approach failed to have due regard, in substance or with rigour or with an open mind, to the need to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity among elderly or disabled residents. The Council, in carrying out a fee setting exercise for private care, failed to ask itself what it could do in respect of those needs.
At the end of the consultation period, it was announced to nobody’s surprise that the closures would go ahead. Cllr Barker had told everyone that the closures would be handled with ‘sensitivity’, but once again, there were shambolic scenes at care homes across Devon – with no organised announcements to residents, relatives or staff. Residents learned piecemeal of the closure, with whispered conversations between staff, informed relatives and residents – trying not to upset other residents who were as yet unaware.
Despite the constant reassurances that ‘nothing would happen immediately’, there was a transition team in Cullompton’s Orchard Lea home the next day. Orchard Lea was being prioritised because ‘the boiler and pipework needed replacing’ so it was best shut down before winter. This was news to Orchard Lea families, who knew perfectly well that the boiler had been replaced the previous winter. DCC corrected this to say that replacing the boiler had highlighted ‘risks’ in the pipework. Of course.
Alarmed by the way the consultation was managed, opposition councillors ‘Called In’ the decision for scrutiny. A Scrutiny Committee Meeting was held on June 26. Like the consultation itself however, this was just another sham. You might expect a scrutiny committee to take its responsibilities seriously, and subject the proposal to something approaching the word ‘scrutiny’. You’d be wrong. Cllr Sara Randall Johnson chaired this committee and made it clear from the outset that she had no time for the public, unions, or any idea that this was anything other than a nuisance. Despite hearing many valid and/or impassioned concerns from councillors on behalf of the public, few if any answers were provided and little concern for residents was evident. The Tory members of the committee were largely silent. There was no evidence that councillors whose job it was to scrutinise the decision on behalf of the public had made any significant effort to do so. One member of the committee was Cllr Margaret Squires. We have found no public statements from her on this matter; she does not reply to private correspondence on the matter and gives no discernible hint that she understands much about what is happening. She sat silently through the scrutiny committee meeting, content simply to raise her hand at the end to vote down all motions to reverse or even mitigate the closures. Another committee member, Cllr Christine Channon, has been convicted of drink driving, not once, but twice in recent years. She does not think that this calls her judgement into question (see Accountability, lack of).
Many people would probably assume that council-run care homes would probably not be among the best, given the general inability of the public sector to organise a piss-up in a brewery. We haven’t heard a single word against them. They’re comfortable, well-regarded, well-run and most importantly they’re home to many elderly and vulnerable people.
It’s hard to believe that simply for ideological reasons, a group of elected politicians would willingly evict elderly people from their homes. Veterans of the Second World War; 100-year old ladies; dementia-sufferers; people with Parkinson’s – these are nothing more than political footballs for our county councillors. It is utterly shameful.