Wednesday 22 June 2011

How Carmarthenshire County Council closed day clubs for the elderly

The row about filming council meetings in Carmarthen was sparked by Cllr Siân Caiach's attempt at a meeting on 8 June to request a debate on the closure of the Noddfa Teilo day club in Llandeilo. Just before she intervened, the council had heard a passionate plea from a group of elderly people who were presenting a petition signed by over 1,500 people calling on the council to reconsider.

It is worth looking at the background to this and the timeline in more detail, because what emerges is a tale which encapsulates so much of what is wrong with the current council administration.

All councils have had to face the prospect of a tough financial settlement and cutbacks. Earlier this year Carmarthenshire highlighted a number of areas in which it wanted to make savings, and went on to publish a very loaded questionnaire in the local press which effectively gave readers the choice between being shot, gassed or electrocuted. Huge areas of council spending, such as spending on large capital projects, were excluded from the survey, and of course we were not given a chance to comment on the massive salaries and pensions enjoyed by the top brass.

Towards the end of March, a list of cutbacks was drawn up, and each of the affected departments was told to go away and draw up detailed plans. Health and Social Care produced a report for a scrutiny committee meeting on 6 May recommending the closure of 5 day clubs for the elderly.

The report makes for interesting reading. Here are the key points:
  • Closing the 5 clubs would save around £400,000 per year, although reading between the lines, this saving is likely to be rather less.
  • £172,000 of the total savings would come from ending transport to bring elderly people from their often remote rural homes to the clubs.
  • Six jobs would be "deleted", although some of these people might possibly find work elsewhere.
  • There had been no consultation with either the users of the clubs or the staff.
  • There would be a significant impact on building assets, and decisions would be needed on which buildings to keep, which could be allocated to the "3rd sector" (i.e. charities and voluntary organisations), and which to sell.
  • There would be a significant impact on transport for elderly people using day services. The implication is that by removing users of day clubs from buses, the numbers qualifying for free transport will fall, which in turn will call the viability of transport services for other elderly people into question and mean that some of the 13 drivers currently employed can be shown the door. Alternatively, charges could be introduced.
  • The report says that the department has been in discussion with voluntary organisations about taking over day club provision, although this does not seem to be true in all cases.
  • The report says that there is significant spare capacity in the day clubs, and that take-up has in some cases been low. We are not told whether the council has made any efforts to promote them and increase visits.
The recommendations made then had to go for approval by the cabinet member responsible for Health and Social Care before going on for approval by the full council and executive board (cabinet).

The report of the scrutiny committee which met on 6 May rather lamely stated "that scrutiny involvement at key stages of the review would be useful before any final decisions were made". In other words, will you tell us if we ask really nicely?

The scrutiny committee report containing these words was presented to the full council at the stormy meeting on 8 June.

Despite this, the decision to close the 5 day clubs appears not to have been approved by either the full council or the executive board, at least judging from the minutes of meetings published so far. And final decisions have been made and clubs closed.

This brings us back to our timeline. Having recommended "development" of the day clubs (county council speak for "closure") on 6 May, the day clubs were told that they would close. In at least one case, that of the Teifi Valley Day Club in Newcastle Emlyn, the club was given two weeks' notice.

Despite the claim by the council that there had been discussions with voluntary organisations, it is clear that no discussions had taken place about the club in Newcastle Emlyn, with Age Cymru telling the press that it was interested in taking over, but had been unable to get any answers from the council.

In Llandeilo, users of the Noddfa Teilo day club were very upset to hear suddenly that their club would close. A petition was started, but the local Independent councillor, Cllr Ieuan Jones, refused to have anything to do with it or to support the campaign. One elderly lady chained herself to railings in protest.

Back in Newcastle Emlyn, the county councillor, Cllr Hazel Evans, managed to secure a three week extension for the club, and only at the last minute was agreement reached between the council and Age Cymru. Despite that, the club will be closed for a month until the new arrangements can be put into place. It seems that the building used is being "leased" to Age Cymru for nothing or just a nominal sum.

One month after the report recommending closure was first presented, the full council met. By that stage clubs had been served notice, staff had been given the standard interviews required under employment law and users of the clubs were upset and confused (remember the bit about 'before final decisions are made'?).

Two days after the row in the council chambers, a press release appeared on the county council's website announcing that a new day club facility had opened in Llandeilo operated by the WRVS. Happy pensioners were quoted, and no mention was made of people chaining themselves to railings, petitions, job losses or any of the distress caused.

Oddly, none of the elderly people who had been so upset appeared to know anything about it, and you have to wonder why the council chose Noddfa Teilo out of the five clubs being closed (sorry, "developed") as the subject for its press release. Surely not cynical PR to try to make protesters look bad?

Back to the savings. The 6 May report says that users of the day clubs will need to be reassessed for care, and that in some cases it is likely that the outcome will be a higher level of care, and therefore more cost. It is also clear that the council will be paying WRVS, Age Cymru and other organisations to take over the service, as the Health and Social Care scrutiny committee heard:

"The issue of amenity funds held by the local authority run day clubs was discussed and the Locality Manager informed the Committee that the level of funds held had varied from facility to facility. He added that legal advice had been sought and the Council could transfer those funds to an organisation taking over the running of the club if certain criteria were met."

What is not at all clear is whether this possible transfer of funds is just once-off for this year, or whether the council will continue to provide funding. Judging from the answer, it would look likely that Age Cymru, etc. will be on their own after this year.

On the subject of transport, the same manager noted happily that,"he had been surprised at the number of people who were willing to pay for transport to a new club of their choice even when there had been provision closer to home." 

How much of this can be believed? The same manager claimed that 3rd sector organisations apporached had been "extremely positive" about the idea of running the clubs. So why was Age Cymru taken by surprise, and why did it complain in the newspapers that it could not get answers from the council?

So what do we know now?
  • Decisions have been pushed through without consultation in a way which has caused distress and anxiety to both staff and the elderly people who rely on the services.
  • The savings will not be anything like as much as those claimed.
  • The programme is receiving only "light-touch" scrutiny from elected councillors. How much money is to be transferred to the 3rd sector? Nobody has asked. What will happen in 2012? We don't know.
  • The day club services, even under the 3rd sector, as well as transport face a very uncertain future.
  • Decisions were made and enacted before they had been approved by councillors, even if that just involves a rubber stamp.
  • There has been a cynical use of the council's PR machine to try to silence and wrongfoot critics.
  • The language used betrays a coldness and contempt for the truth which seems to permeate so much of the CCC bureaucracy. Elderly people are just "service users"; jobs are "deleted". And next time you hear that your local bus service or primary school is to be "developed" or that another service is to be "modernised", you will have cause to worry.
 I will return to the subject of the council's use of language another time.

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