The process of challenging the adult social care decisions made by local authorities is confusing, slow and stressful and is failing the disabled people who rely on it, an inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found.
The commission launched the inquiry in July 2021 to examine the experiences of service-users and carers who have challenged decisions made by councils in England and Wales.
The inquiry report, published this week, found that some service-users are put off challenging council decisions on their support because they are “afraid of negative repercussions”.
One disabled person told the commission that the process of trying to secure support from their council had made them ill, and that they “ended up completely just screaming and shouting for weeks on end because I was in such a state”.
They added: “I didn’t know what to do. I was having all these emails and being told this and having all these meetings. It was just… I didn’t know what to do.”
Some of those interviewed by the commission described “unethical or dishonest” behaviour by local authority staff, including deliberately not sharing information and giving false information.
One said: “Because I’ve had to challenge them, and rightly so, they loathe me and they will do anything they can to write things to keep excluding me really.
“It’s just horrendous, because the lies that are written to cover their backs are shocking.”
Disability Law Service, which provided evidence to the inquiry, said it welcomed the EHRC report.
It said that local authority social care complaints handling was “not effective” because the relevant regulations fail to demand enough from local authorities “in respect of process, quality, timescales and outcomes”.
And it said that complaints handling was “undermined” by the absence of a system of independent reviews, and a lack of technical knowledge among those investigating complaints.
The Care Act 2014 included measures to set up a system for appealing against social care decisions, but the UK government has yet to implement it.
One third of local authorities in England and nearly half of those in Wales have established their own appeals system for some adult social care decisions, while decisions can also be challenged through judicial review in the high court.
Service-users can also lodge complaints with their council, and once that process has been exhausted, a complaint can be lodged with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman or the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.
But disabled people told EHRC that they struggled to navigate the complaints system, particularly if they were already at crisis point, and that they found the process “unclear, complex and energy-sapping”.
The commission found that fewer than half (42 per cent) of local authorities would always signpost someone wishing to challenge a decision to independent advice or support.
A Law Society study found last year that legal aid for social care cases was unavailable to more than two-thirds of the population in England and Wales, while there were only three community care solicitors operating in Wales.
Many of the solicitors who do work in the social care area are unwilling to take on cases concerning assessment, eligibility, care packages and related financial issues, the commission said.
It called on the UK government to “urgently review the issues with legal aid for community care across England and Wales”.
The inquiry found that around nine in 10 local authorities provide information on how to challenge a social care decision in the most common accessible formats (including easy read, large print, British Sign Language and alternative languages), but up to 10 per cent either do not provide that format at all, or do not know if they do.
And only three per cent of local authorities make such information publicly available in British Sign Language without people having to take steps themselves to request it.
And just two-fifths (42 per cent) of local authorities reported training frontline decision-makers on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
One of the disabled people who gave evidence to the inquiry described how their council cut their support by three-quarters even though the impact of their impairment on their life had not changed.
Another described the “degradation” they had experienced at the hands of their local authority, which had damaged their “self-image”.
They said: “To suddenly have a living environment where you have dust all over the floor or your coffee table has about five months’ worth of stains and is actually very unhygienic.
“To live like that you don’t feel clean. You don’t feel like a respectable human being I suppose.”
Many service-users the inquiry heard from said they felt their involvement in assessments and care and support planning “was tokenistic, frustrating and disempowering, culminating in care and support that did not meet their needs properly”.
The inquiry also heard of care charging decisions by councils that “pushed people into more precarious financial situations”, while some local authorities failed to take account of disability-related expenditure when calculating financial assessments, “even though they are required to do so”.
Marcial Boo, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “While local authorities are facing huge pressures, they must protect people’s rights when making decisions about their care.
“Effective ways for people to challenge those decisions are crucial to ensuring that good decisions are made and people’s needs are met.
“People who receive social care should not be left in the dark about how to challenge decisions that affect their wellbeing, dignity and independence so fundamentally.
“Our findings demonstrate that improvements must be made to the accessibility of information, the clarity of the complaints process and the availability of support.”
The commission’s report makes recommendations for local authorities in England and Wales, the UK and Welsh governments and other bodies, including the Care Quality Commission and the Care Inspectorate Wales.
Picture: The government office block where EHRC has its London headquarters. Pictured by Google
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