Young and old in the UK face growing care crisis

Many people in the UK, from children to old people, need care. But some councils say they can't afford it and care companies are running out of money.

Pressure on the government over the crisis in adult care mounted yesterday after a letter was published from an abused 16-year-old begging the prime minister to stop the closure of any more children's homes.

The teenager, who had 15 foster placements before settling in a residential home, is fighting a threat from Essex council to close all seven of its homes. The letter has added to a wave of criticism created by revelations of abuse at a residential home in Bristol and the near collapse of Southern Cross, Britain's biggest elderly care home provider.

Southern Cross was sold for £162m in 2004 to American financiers Blackstone and subsequently floated on the London stock market for over £700m.

The company is now struggling to pay its bills as the supply of older customers has diminished as councils (who still pay the bills in the end) find they cannot afford the fees for all the people who need care homes.

The business may be forced to close. This threatens the very existence of the 30,000 older people living in Southern Cross care homes.

At the other end of the age spectrum many children's homes are closing as, once again, councils say they can't afford the upkeep and the staff.

This is partly due to government cutbacks as the grant from central government to local government has been reduced to try to shrink total UK borrowing (the country has a deficit of around £150bn).

When the pressure is on to borrow less, as it is now, something has to give and so care services are facing a major crisis.

In terms of young people, the action by Essex council looks extreme. Yes, the council has to save money but shutting down all its children's homes is a drastic remedy.

But looking after the elderly and vulnerable is expensive. Councils and the government are poorer than they have been for years. It's a serious problem.

Private grief

For years, it was hoped that the private sector would be the solution. Private companies have a strong financial incentive to cut costs and operate efficiently. That makes them very good at making savings.

But sometimes, as in the case of the recent Bristol abuse scandal, cost cutting seems to lead to problems. Underpaid, overworked staff may be more likely to become abusive and to mistreat the people in their care.

So the problem remains: should we somehow find the money for councils to run care homes themselves? That might mean higher taxes or cuts to other public services. Or do we leave society's most vulnerable people in the care of private companies who may not have their best interests at heart?

You Decide

  1. Are children's homes the best places for children who don't have families to live with? What are the alternatives?
  2. Should there be limits on the profits companies can make, particularly when they're operating in sensitive areas like care. Should they be banned from providing care altogether?

Activities

  1. Some very successful and famous people have been brought up in children's homes outside a family environment. Using the internet, can you find three examples?
  2. How much do you think it costs to look after one person in a care home for a week? Prepare a budget taking into account rent, care staff including nurses, outside medical help, activities, food and entertainment.

Some People Say...

“In a decent society, families would look after old people themselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who pays the cost of caring for old people at the moment?
The government and old people themselves share the cost. Care for the elderly is 'means tested' which means old people have to pay most of the charges if they have savings.
But now the government can't afford it?
It's a problem now for two main reasons. The first is that as more people live for longer there are now more old people to look after. The second is that the government is cutting spending in an effort to recover from the global financial crisis.
And private companies can get things done cheaper?
That's the idea. Private companies compete to do things as efficiently as possible and find new ways of cutting costs. The private sector already helps with lots of government tasks, from public transport to supporting the armed forces.

Word Watch

Foster placements
Children whose parents are not able to look after them are sometimes placed in foster homes, where they can be temporarily looked after by a foster family.
Deficit
The 'deficit' is the difference between the amount the government receives in taxes and the amount it spends on public services. If a government spends more than it receives it has to borrow the difference, which increases national debt.
Private Sector
The 'private sector' is the part of the economy which is composed of private, profit-making companies. Government employees work for the 'public sector'. Charities make up the 'voluntary sector'.

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