Our analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the outlook for funding English councils

ARC England understands how important the Institute for Fiscal Studies report is for providers of services that support people with a learning disability and autistic people because in most cases, most of the income these organisations receive comes from their local authority as payment for the delivery of services that councils have a statutory duty to provide.

Recently, when we asked an elected member to tell us how robustly adult social care budgets are ring-fenced (the budget we were looking at described them as ring-fenced), the Counsellor simply laughed.

Admittedly, this was Birmingham City Council (and this was a conversation about a budget that had been approved by councillors a few months before the council issued a Section 114 notice which led to revelations about the authority that are well-documented elsewhere) but we have no reason to believe that other local authorities protect social care budgets any better.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) describes a conspiracy of silence between both Labour and Conservative politicians in relation to the cuts to public services that must happen if the incoming government is to stick to fiscal rules without significantly raising taxes, something both parties have said they will not do.

The IFS warned that a new government claiming ignorance about necessary tax hikes or fiscal rule changes would be ‘fundamentally dishonest.’ This suggests we can expect heated debates after July 4th. Whilst the report does take into consideration the increasing demand for adult social care services, ARC England members will no doubt treat this with caution because they know all too well that when adult social care services are being talked about, the topic actually under discussion is very often the care support that older people receive. Learning disability and autism services are poorly understood, particularly in relation to demand.

What is conspicuous in its absence is recognition of the very significant unmet demand that has arisen as a result of changes in relation to eligibility criteria (as well as the many and varied ways in which councils are operating in breach of their duties under the Care Act).  This is an important concern in relation to people with learning disabilities and autistic people that was raised within our Headwinds group which looks collaboratively at the future of services that people with a learning disability autistic people rely on.

Where the report suggests that there will need to be some rebalancing in relation to the way in which grant funding is provided in respect of levels of deprivation in local authority areas, an incoming Labour government may be more likely to embrace this in recognition of the grossly unfair way in which austerity-driven and ideologically motivated cuts to local authority grant funding impacted differently in affluent versus poor and urban versus non-urban councils.

The IFS report confirms that during the 2019-24 parliament, funding for local government was increased.  However, learning disability and autism service providers know that this is because this additional funding followed unprecedented cuts to local authority budgets which resulted in huge losses in terms of experienced, knowledgeable, competent and motivated officers. This meant that making sure that the additional money did what it was intended to do was always going to be difficult.

Additionally, to a significant extent, this additional funding was ‘thrown at the problem of social care’ without a clear plan or strategy and this is another way that this potentially positive funding increase failed to achieve what we wanted it to achieve and what it had the potential to achieve.

This report discusses the increases in spending above and beyond manifesto statements that usually follow an election but cautions that there is very little headroom within which the new government will be able to significantly increase spending warning that ‘increases in grant funding of the scale seen between 2019–20 and 2024–25 are unlikely’.

The report states that ‘growth in demand and cost pressures is [sic] likely to moderate at some stage’ but when and by how much is unclear and this portends an extended period within which providers of learning disability and autism services will continue to be underfunded, in many cases, receiving an hourly rate for the services that they provide which does not allow them to meet their statutory duty to pay their staff the national living wage.The report also suggests that it will be difficult for the incoming government to review and modernise the local government finance system including, as part of that work, undertaking a review into whether councils are funded sufficiently well to provide the range of services they need to provide at the quality levels that they are expected to comply with.

In the event that a way through this is found, it will be interesting to see how such a sufficiency review compares with the data that is eventually released following the freedom of information request asking the Department for Health and Social Care to show its workings in relation to its assertion that social care is sufficiently funded; the Information Commissioner has found that it is within the public interest for this information to be disclosed but the department continues to appeal this decision.