"Figures obtained under Freedom of Information (FoI) show that £104 million [in social care fees] has been written off, while £361 million is outstanding. As not all councils responded to the request, and some covered only a few years, the total figure is likely to be even higher."
The Times, 19 May 2012
A look at the evidence
The Times article makes it clear that the figures were obtained by Chris Skidmore MP. They can be found in 'The Social Care Market: Fixing a Broken System', which was written by Mr Skidmore for the Conservative backbench Free Enterprise Group (FEG).
The report doesn't delve into the figures in much detail, and the data which was obtained by Mr. Skidmore's FOI requests aren't included.
Mr Skidmore's office sent us a spreadsheet of the data which was gathered by his FOI requests, which lists the total amount owed to each council, as well as the amount which each council has written off.
Having contacted Mr Skidmore's office again over some disparities between individual sheets contained in the document, we were able to confirm that these disparities were due to oversight and to some responses coming back from councils after certain sheets had been fully put together.
The spreadsheet does not give details of individual councils' responses. In the past, we have found that sometimes different councils interpret questions differently or count things differently, complicating attempts to produce national figures. There is no way of knowing if that has happened here.
What we do know from Mr Skidmore's report is that "There was considerable variation in the information available — with some authorities able to provide comprehensive accounts as far back as 2001, others only for the last few years."
We also note that although the spreadsheet contains information for 124 out of 149 councils, Mr Skidmore's report gives the same total figures listed in the spreadsheet but says he received responses from 131 out of 150 councils.
However, the total amount owed as stated on the main spreadsheet ("Full data") comes up to £361,137,300.88, and the total written off comes to £103,878,502.87.
Both the Times and the FEG report represented these figures accurately, with the Times making clear in the second paragraph that its headline £465 million included debts written off as well as those still outstanding.
The spreadsheet incidentally confirms some more figures which appear at the bottom of the Times article, which relate to amounts owed to and written off by Ealing and Surrey County Councils.
Does it matter?
It is always good to get a sense of scale, and The Times helpfully quotes Sarah Pickup, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), arguing that the figures needed to be seen in the context of local authorities spending £13.5 billion each year on adult social care.
The Dilnot Report — the report of the commission asked to find a fair way to fund adult social care in future — says that "The Government currently spends £14.5 billion p.a. on adult social care in England." So as most social care is funded through councils, the ADASS figure seems about right.
While much of that money will not be owed back to councils by the beneficiaries of the care, it does helps to put things in perspective. The accumulated debt over years that councils were able to identify amounts to something like 3.5 per cent of the annual spend on social care. Certainly not negligible, but presumably not enough to bring the system to its knees.
It is probably also true that everyone would wish for some sensitivity in collecting debts from recently-bereaved families.
The Times has reported the figures contained in the report accurately. It is fair to note, as the Times does in paragraph two, that its headline figure includes debt that has been rewritten off, and so at a glance perhaps gives a high impression of how much could be actually be recovered.
On the other hand, the Times article and the FEG report acknowledge that the total amount owed and written off is likely to be higher than the figures quoted, as not all councils responded on time.
While this does mean that the figures in the spreadsheet, the FEG report and the Times article are not as full as they could be, it would be unreasonable to hold this against the FEG report and Times article. Both make it clear that we have an incomplete picture of the amount owed.
Mr Skidmore's research has revealed some interesting figures and we are glad to have had the opportunity to publish them for wider use.
He has certainly justified the point he makes in the FEG report that "One problem that particularly affects adult social care is unpaid debt from charges."
He is also entitled to, and some will share, his opinion quoted in the Times that, "The fact that local authorities are struggling to recoup debts owed to them demonstrates that the current model of delivering social care is a flawed one."
On the other hand, others may agree with the President of ADASS that these debts are a relatively normal part of conducting business on that scale and sympathise with the fact that they are more complicated to collect than some debts may be.
Unfortunately interesting nuggets like this sometimes turn to nonsense when used without a full understanding of what they mean. If you see this one being misused, please let us know.
The political parties are still discussing how to respond to the Dilnot Report and find a viable solution for funding social care in the long term. This debate will carry on and, with so much at stake, it needs to be as well-informed as possible.