Devon County Council’s case for closing 20 residential care homes and evicting 260 elderly people is almost entirely based on two numbers they’ve calculated:
£903 per week to keep someone in one of the County Council’s own excellent care homes.
£426 per week to farm someone out to a private care home, which may be good, bad, indifferent or downright dangerous to health.
At the end of 2013, Devon County Council instructed their care homes to refuse admittance to new residents. Shortly afterwards they announced they were ‘considering’ closing their care homes and were launching a consultation on the proposal.
£903 vs £426 per week quickly emerged as the leading argument, trotted out by various councillors and DCC staff during the consultation period. However, it was quickly realised that £903 was arrived at by dividing the care home budget by the current number of occupants, which had already fallen drastically. Tiverton’s Charlton Lodge home was by then only looking after 18 residents instead of a potential 30-odd.
Neither did the £903 take into account fees paid by residents, some of whom are entirely self-funding.
Councillor Stuart Barker, the man told to make the decision, acknowledges the £903 figure is based on low occupancy, but says in defence of it that if the occupancy was higher they’d have to recruit more staff, so it would work out the same.
This is nonsense. If Barker and co. had confidence in the figures they should have published the cost per week based on full occupancy, with complete transparency on costs. This would be the only fair way of comparing DCC homes with private sector homes, and the only figure that any sensible person would accept. Instead of publishing a simple unassailable figure, they publish a massaged figure and try to defend it.
Since the decision was taken to close the care homes, some of them are now allowed to accept residents again (yes, go figure). They are being given rooms on a short-term basis on the proviso that they will have to move when the home closes. This begs a number of questions:
1. Why are DCC putting people up in beds that are costing £903 per week when they say they can be found places at £426 per week?
2. If the occupancy of the homes is now going up again, this means that DCC must surely be having to employ more people to look after them – see their argument about massaged figures. But no, they’re not.
3. During a long period from late 2013 to June 2014, these homes were not allowed to admit residents ‘because of the uncertainty’ over the closures. This was distressing for many people who had hoped to find rooms – in some places it can be really hard to find a place in your home town at all, let alone one that’s good quality and reasonable cost. These people were turned away and had to make difficult decisions about alternative homes, when they could have been admitted on the same basis that people are now. But of course the decision had been made back in 2013, before the proposal and consultation had ever been announced.
Let’s have a look at Councillor Barker’s numbers from another angle. In his defence of the closures, published on DCC’s NewsCentre, Barker gives us a high-level view of the figures. According to him:
“I have a budget of around £70 million a year for residential care. Nearly 30 per cent of that budget goes on providing places for around 10 per cent of the residents who currently live in Devon County Council homes – some 260 people.”
30% of £70 million is £21 million, which divided by 260 people and 52 weeks gives £1553 per week. Huh? OK, let’s assume he’s exaggerating the 30% for comic effect, but that there is £70m budget. How many people does this cover? 260 people represent 10% of the total so there’s 2600 people involved. £70m divided by 2600 is £518 per week. Not that far from the £426 Barker claims to be paying the private sector. Taking into account the costs of this process it’s hard to see how this will pay. We assume the real prize will be selling off the properties involved to developers, though DCC aren’t actually very good at this and have any number of unused properties rotting away, racking up costs.
Here’s another angle. There’s a Freedom of Information request here relating to the running costs of Beech House in South Molton. £925,163 for the year ending March 2012. Capacity 34 – 37 people. Let’s be generous and take the lower figure. £523 per week. Interestingly close to the £518 calculated above. £523 per week for an excellent care home that people love. Sounds like great value doesn’t it? We don’t think this is an unusual example.
So what have we learned? That Stuart Barker makes it up as he goes along and isn’t good at arithmetic? A campaigner challenged him on the figures. Barker responded that he was asking the accountants at DCC for more clarity on the figures: “I expect to give those who calculate and provide financial information the opportunity to look at your questions and provide the answers. As you are questioning accuracy it is right they provide the explanation for their work.” Say what?! Barker’s entire case is underpinned by these figures yet when challenged he is not sure of the basis of them and has to go back to the finance department? For f*ck’s sake. This was July 10th and no further answers provided to date.
However, let’s agree that DCC’s care homes are not as cost-effective to run as they should be. This isn’t much of a stretch to believe, as let’s face it, what public sector organisation is run on anything approaching business-like lines? So, what consideration was given to a serious attempt to reduce costs here? According to The Association of Public Service Excellence, in a report commissioned by Unison, “no consideration appears to have been given” to reducing costs. Why wouldn’t you look at that? Because you already believe they should be closed – even if they were cheaper than private care homes to run.
As for £426 per week average private sector costs – well, we’re still looking into that one. Nobody believes that number, but DCC do have form in screwing care homes. Given that a private person shopping around for care can expect to pay around £750/week (we’ve been quoted between £550 and £1000 per week when looking for care for relatives), then presumably £426 buys you the sort of care provided by such fine establishments as Winterbourne View, Old Deanery, Orchid View, Granary Care Home, Oban House and all the others in the appalling catalogue of abuse and neglect that’s slowly being uncovered in the private sector. What’s certainly true is that councils do not pay enough in fees to the private sector. When a big customer puts the screws on suppliers to reduce costs, you end up with horsemeat lasagne.
What about other costs of the closure? Redundancy payments to staff? These are being paid ‘from reserves’ and have not been deducted from the savings. That’s called cooking the books. Long-term costs of social security payments to redundant staff who can’t find jobs? Not DCC’s budget, so not factored in. Extra costs on the NHS through the impact on moving vulnerable residents around? Not DCC’s budget, so not factored in. These are the same ‘savings’ as when closing Council-run Youth Centres – the costs of ‘looking after’ bored youth simply moves from DCC to the Police – job done! The total tax bill doesn’t go down because the costs have simply transferred to another organisation’s budget, but DCC can tell you they’re saving you millions. Creative accounting when you look at the big picture.