Time to care: It will be hard to resolve the scandal of flying carers’ visits without more money

The health minister is right to describe these phantom, mini-visits as "unfair", but real reform is now needed to avoid further damage

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As the population in Britain ages, more of us are going to be sicker for longer, which is why the debate on the type of care we receive at home is bound to become heated. The Government recognises this, and is pushing ahead with the Care Bill, full of fine, compassionate-sounding phrases about joining up dots, empowering carers and patients alike and putting people “in control of the services they use”.

The question is whether most people on the receiving end of care recognise this uplifting narrative as matching their own experiences – which is unlikely, especially in the light of the report of a well-known charity, which says councils are plugging holes in care networks by commissioning flying visits of a mere 15 minutes.

This claim does not come from a new or obscure organisation that can be accused of pursuing a partisan agenda, or of making flamboyant assertions mainly for the sake of drawing attention. Leonard Cheshire Disability is one of the biggest, most respected, charities in Britain working in welfare and disability. Its words carry authority when it says that disabled people on the receiving end of these lightning visits have to make such absurd choices as deciding between the obviously equivalent priorities of getting a drink or being taken to the bathroom.

Clare Pelham, chief executive of the charity, points out that even people in full possession all their faculties still take about 40 minutes to get ready in the morning, which is why it is especially cruel to expect elderly and disabled people to cram the needs of an entire day into a single quarter-hour visit.

The health minister, Norman Lamb, has described these phantom-like, mini-visits as “unfair”, and has promised an amendment to the Care Bill that would oblige councils to consider people’s wellbeing when arranging their care. He might as well not bother with his proposal, as such an opaque obligation is so open to interpretation as to be almost meaningless. The charity’s own call for a more precise-sounding amendment, obliging councils to make care visits last at least half an hour, is more to the point.

Mr Lamb’s evasiveness about ending the shortcomings of outsourced “call cramming” is, in one sense, understandable. The Government is determined to keep local government finance on a leash. While ministers accept that most people would hate to end up, when sick or old, relying on 15 minutes of help per visit, they know that longer visits would cost a good deal more money, which means taxes going up somewhere.

Obviously, Mr Lamb cannot make the kind of sizeable spending commitment that is required to lengthen carers’ visits without a nod from the Chancellor, George Osborne, who looks unlikely to give it. The Government should think again, before some inevitable, appalling scandal erupts, and forces its hand.

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