Postcode care lottery denounced as council charges soar
The charges some elderly people must pay for council carers to come into their homes have risen sharply.
Figures obtained under Freedom of Information requests show that charges in England and Wales vary widely among councils.
The consumer group Which? said there was a postcode lottery under which hourly rates in some areas have soared.
But councils argue that cuts in government funding mean there is not enough money to go round.
One Nottingham couple, John and Maggie Onyett, has been told that their monthly bill will jump from £324 to £920.
"It was a shock. I felt a bit sick," Mr Onyett told BBC News. "It is like buying an item from a shop: one day it is 10p and the next day it is three quid. How do you justify that?"
Mr Onyett, 74, looks after his wife, who has had a stroke, in their home. But he needs help from council carers to get her up, and wash and dress her.
Councils provide free or partial help with personal care if elderly people have a high level of need and if they have savings of less than around £23,000.
But according to Freedom of Information requests put in by Which?, those who don't pass the means test face a widening range of charges.
They vary from nothing at all in Derbyshire, Tower Hamlets and Newham up to £19.80 and hour in Cheshire East and £21.66 an hour in Surrey.
The average charge is £12 an hour, though in Scotland the care is free for all those who qualify on grounds of need.
Councils point out that there are genuine cost differences across the UK which they have to take into account.
But Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, rejects that explanation. "It is ludicrous that people living just a few miles apart can pay such wildly different amounts for the same services," he said.
"Everyone should have comparable access to the care and support they need to remain independent and in their own home, regardless of where they live."
Another finding from the questionnaires sent to councils is that they are narrowing their definitions of need when assessing requests for support.
Elderly people are put in one of four categories, describing how much care is required: low, moderate, substantial or critical.
Which? found that 70% of councils restricted care to those with substantial or critical needs, a rise from 53% in 2005.
'Drain you dry'
Late last year three local authorities, West Berkshire, Northumberland and Wokingham, were only providing home care to those listed as critical.
John and Maggie Onyett's savings are slightly more than Nottingham City Council's £23,500 cut-off point for help with care, so they have to pay out of their own pockets. Another 916 elderly people in the city face increases in their charges as well.
"It is like cutting your jugular vein," Mr Onyett said, "It will drain you dry."
The Local Government Association (LGA) said that there was not enough money in the system after reductions in government funding.
"Councils across the country work tirelessly to provide the best possible level of social care so people in need can enjoy the respect and dignity they deserve," said David Rogers, chairman of the LGA's Community Wellbeing Board.
"But the triple pressures of insufficient funding, growing demand and escalating costs are placing the current adult social care system under acute financial strain."
Nottingham faces a £60m reduction in its budget.
Its councillor in charge of adult services, Eunice Campbell, explained: "We have done all we can to try to support the most vulnerable but unfortunately even they in some cases will feel the potentially devastating effects of these Government-imposed cuts."
Nottingham's hourly rate for in-the-home care has risen, but at £11.50 it is still slightly below average.
What has affected elderly people most severely has been the removal of an £81 upper limit on total charges per week in Nottingham.
With their budgets under pressure, a number of other councils, including Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire and North Yorkshire have removed their weekly caps as well.
The Department of Health points out that extra funding is being provided for all forms of social care, rising to an additional £2bn by 2013-14.
But a spokesman added: "Even with this extra funding, every council has to make savings and, like the government, make tough decisions."
"In social care that means looking at new ways of working, including using private and voluntary sector care providers, developing re-ablement services and offering more support for carers."
The Coalition has set up a commission to look at methods of funding care in England.