Councils failing in duty to inspect homes: Nearly half of social services departments are in breach of regulations that require them to make at least two visits every year. Tim Kelsey and Angharad ap Gwilym report

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NEARLY half the local authorities in England and Wales are in breach of statutory duties to inspect residential homes for children, the elderly and the handicapped twice a year, according to a survey by the Independent.

Some councils did not even inspect all their homes once last year. Some claimed that they were unable to do so because of staff vacancies and lack of resources. Others admitted that they kept no record of inspections.

The frequency of abuse scandals in care homes over the past few years has provoked widespread concern that private and council- run institutions are not adequately supervised.

Last month, the Independent disclosed allegations that mentally handicapped residents were abused at two private homes in Buckinghamshire. One of these had been inspected only once in two years by local social services.

Buckinghamshire has only inspected 88 per cent of its homes once in the last year. Local private home owners carried out a survey in the county and discovered that at least three homes had not been inspected for nearly two years.

A survey of 54 county and metropolitan councils disclosed that 22 were breaking the law by failing to inspect homes twice a year. Five said they did not know how many times homes were visited. The Department of Health confirmed yesterday that local social services inspectors should visit homes once by arrangement and again unannounced under the terms of the 1984 Registered Homes Act and subsequent legislation. The department's Social Services Inspectorate has recently started to investigate how efficiently social services departments are operating. It has so far reported on 37 out of the 106. The department said: 'The SSI intends to have inspected all authorities by the end of next year and has discovered that some are not fulfilling their statutory requirements.'

Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, has the right to appoint an independent commissioner to run a social services department which does not meet its statutory obligations. She has not so far exercised this power.

Bury council, in Greater Manchester, reported that it had inspected only 53 per cent of homes once last year. This is the worst performance of the authorities that provided figures. David Ashworth, director of social services in Bury, said: 'We weren't happy but it was an abnormal year. We had a large number of staff vacancies and we have a large number of residential beds . . . I believe the figures will be up this year.'

Bury has not been inspected by the inspectorate. Humberside, by contrast, inspected its 393 homes 3,590 times - nine visits per home. Some councils said they could not provide figures. Newcastle said that it met its statutory obligations but was unable to provide any supporting statistics: 'We don't have a computer that records the figures. It is just in individual people's diaries.'

Kevin Ashton, vice-chairman of the National Association for Inspection and Registration Officers, which represents half the 1,000 social workers responsible for inspecting homes, said last night: 'I would be amazed if authorities are not able to produce figures. I would have thought they would collate them at least once a year.'

He added that many inspection units were unable to meet statutory requirements because of lack of resources and the need to investigate allegations of misconduct. He also blamed the Government for giving inspections units new responsibilities without additional funds. It has recently been announced that fees paid by private homes for inspections will be frozen for the second year running.

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