Social care has always been the Cinderella service to the NHS. Each year we are seeing more disabled and older people need care than ever before, but for the last 20 years, governments of all stripes have failed to address the growing disparity between the demand and supply of social care. That social care budgets have been cut to the bone by austerity has added further duress.
It is accepted that social care is on a financial knife edge. Now, a deepening economic crisis is pushing cash-strapped local authorities – and the people that rely on them for social care – to the precipice. According to new research, more than eight out of 10 English councils providing adult social care services are at technical risk of bankruptcy because they cannot meet the extra financial pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Decision makers in local authorities, struggling to balance their books, have been denying people the social care they need and have a right to, and things are set to get worse. It is a shocking statistic that only 4% of local authority leaders are confident that they will meet their legal duties this year, and none next year.
People across the country are suffering rather than getting the social care they need. From individuals with complex needs who are locked away in hospitals rather than supported to live in the community, to people with lower level needs having their support hours cut until they drop out of the social care system altogether which perversely, results in people with the smallest needs often ending up the most at risk.
But is it not just cuts to local authority budgets denying access to social care. Disinvestment in legal aid is also having a huge impact leaving 80% of local authority areas with no legal aid lawyer able to advise on community care issues. This combined with a general lack of understanding of legal rights open to us and a perception of the law as lofty, complicated and an opposing force, rather than a tool that can help us means that individuals have been increasingly unable or unwilling to seek legal advice to ensure they receive the social care that is available to them.
Access Social Care, a new independent charity previously incubated at Royal Mencap Society, makes sure that more people’s basic legal rights are upheld and that people get the social care they need and have a right to. Our vision is for social care to be properly funded, readily available and fairly distributed. We aim to empower and educate individuals – care managers, families and people with care – to feel confident to seek legal advice to access the support that is available to them.
To deliver this support we have created a Legal Network where we link our legal knowledge to other organisations and their beneficiaries across the social care sector. Our Legal Network has 10 members so far including Choice Support, Dimensions, MacIntyre, Mencap, United Response, Camphill Village Trust and Milestones and operates through a subscription-based membership model.
We also provide early legal help so that people can enforce their right to social care. With just a few letters from us, we can transform outcomes and make sure people with social care needs get the care and support they have a right to. But it’s not just letters, in March we won the Nesta Legal Access Challenge for our online legal chatbot, developed with IBM to answer legal questions.
Access Social Care are working with lawyers Fieldfisher, Baker McKenzie, Orrick, Slaughter and May, Shearman and Stirling as well as barristers and clerks at 39 Essex Chambers, Landmark Chambers and Doughty Street Chambers all of whom are working pro-bono allowing individuals to receive free expert legal advice. These solicitors and barristers work with Access Social Care to support individuals so that each case gets a fair outcome, but we don’t stop there. By gathering data about unlawful public body decision making, we are shifting the power back to communities and driving system change so that so public body decision makers make more lawful decisions and live up to their legal duties to protect society’s most vulnerable.
If there is a silver lining from both the pandemic and social care crisis it is that society is increasingly mindful of how our choices affect others, specifically disabled and older people. In essence, the desire is not to return to ‘normal life’, but to transform into a fairer, more supportive nation. Access Social Care is proud to be part of a brighter future creating a fair process and ensuring the wellbeing of individuals and their families. Working together, we can ensure that people receive the social care they have a legal right to.