COUNCIL chiefs in Sunderland are axing the meals-on-wheels service.
Concerns have been raised about pensioners facing hefty hikes in the cost of food as a result of shutting the Meals at Home service.
A watchdog health committee has criticised Sunderland City Council officers for making the decision behind closed doors.
Because the council was effectively subsidising half the cost of meals it provided, people in need could see their food bills double as a result of the decision.
They will now have to turn to private providers to meet their needs. The funding for their social care needs covers the cost of preparing and delivery their meals, but not the food itself.
The council said it was left with little choice but to axe the service after dwindling demand and new rules meant the service had become economically unviable.
Alan Patchett, director of Age UK Sunderland, said: “We just cannot abandon older people and vulnerable people and say ‘there are plenty of other providers out there, get on with it’.
“We need to make sure those needs are being met. I understand the funding pressures the council faces, but we have to be able to be confident that the most vulnerable people in Sunderland are still receiving the service they require.”
More than 200 people are understood to be affected by the axing of Sunderland Council’s meals-on-wheels service.
Turn to Page 3
Questions were raised when it was revealed Newcastle and Gateshead councils have both been able to retain their services.
“We know our neighbouring authorities are still able to deliver this service,” said Peter Walker, chairman on the council’s Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee.
“I do think we should have been consulted prior to this decision being made. It’s disappointing.”
Mayor of Sunderland Norma Wright, a former chair of the committee who also served as cabinet member for health in Sunderland, also criticised senior councillors for not making the decision more open.
“I fully appreciate the reasons for the decision, my concern is that despite there being a massive review by scrutiny a few years back that we’re now in a situation where the committee wasn’t informed the service was being stopped,” she said.
“I do think scrutiny should have been informed prior to this happening and I also think cabinet members should have brought this to the Labour Group.”
Washington councillor Dianne Snowdown said the council’s decision not to increase charges for its meals as costs rose over the years meant those who used the service were going to be hit with a cost jump when they switched to another provider.
“Older people living in their own homes are going to be very alarmed by this,” she said.
Fulwell councillor Bob Francis expressed concerns over how the quality of the food and the delivery service would be monitored.
Councillors also said they had previously been told delivery teams provided an important added benefit of monitoring the older people they served and flagging up any concerns.
Philippa Corner, head of personalisation at the council’s Health, Housing and Adult Services directorate, said independent providers would now have this responsibility.
She said any concerns about the quality of food and services provided by outside agencies could be raised with the council, and customers would also be able to vote with their feet if one provider did not come up to scratch.
Ms Corner said not all the council’s customers received meals every day, so the level of demand had dropped to 100 meals per day.
She said: “In order for the council’s service to be financially viable the service needed to deliver 300 meals per day.
“The cost of running the service became uneconomic as fewer people were using the service.
“The charge to the customer has been unchanged for some time at £2.60, to cover the cost of the food content which in itself is not a social care need, while the cost of the service to the council rose to £5.79. So it was a subsidised service.”
Most staff from the meals service have been redeployed to other council roles, but five have been “displaced”.
LAWS against councils “trading” are to blame for a drop in demand for the authority’s meals-on-wheels service, it was claimed.
Older people and others assessed as in need of support to maintain a health diet receive a sum of money as part of their personal budget.
This can then be either managed through the council, or taken as a direct payment so they can manage their own.
But rules mean they cannot use this money to buy in-house services from the council. Private companies, voluntary organisations and pubs and cafes now offer meals to those in need of such services.
The Government is pushing to get more and more people to manage their own personal budget, and by 2013 it is expected that all people with an eligible social care need will be directing their own support.
Coun Peter Walker said this was of great concern and called for the rules on buying services to be examined by authorities.