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Cheer Up Rupert, At Least You Won't End Up in a Care Home

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At 81, Rupert Murdoch is lucky enough to be blessed with rude health, a billionaire's bank account and a younger wife with a decent right hook.

This week's excellent Panorama documentary on elderly care showed that not all older people in this country are so fortunate.

So concerned was Jane Worroll about the decline of her 78-year-old mother, Maria, after she went to live in Ash Court, a 62-bedroom private care home in North London, that she placed a video surveillance clock in her room.

The resulting footage was sickening, showing carers treating Maria, who has both Alzheimer's and arthritis, like a sack of potatoes rather than a person, roughly man-handling and not even conversing with her, as they attempted to wash, clothe and feed her.

Most appalling of all was sadistic scenes of 'carer' Jonathan Aquino repeatedly slapping Maria for absolutely no reason other than because he could. He has since been jailed for 18 months, and the other carers have been sacked.

The controversial quango that is supposed to monitor care homes, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has been criticised for a weak response to the abuse after it visited the home twice following the assault and concluded that there were no on-going issues with safeguarding. Unsurprisingly, Jane Worroll described this CQC report as "just another slap around the face".

This is not the first time that the CQC and Panorama have crossed swords. Last year, the programme exposed a "culture of abuse" at Winterbourne View, a private hospital for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol. Again, covert filming revealed patients being slapped, taunted, dragged around and pinned down, despite senior nurse Terry Bryan repeatedly attempting to report his concerns to the CQC.

It is important to stress that neither of these cases involved qualified social workers, despite the determination of some newspapers to tar them with the same brush.

This trend of providing care on the cheap, using unqualified and untrained staff, is both worrying and growing. Some care worker roles are paid the same rate offered by fast food outlets, degradation of important work that is clearly reflected in the quality of care on offer.

Not all care workers are potential abusers, and most try their best to look after vulnerable people, yet they are frequently not receiving adequate training and support.

It is a problem exacerbated by two further aggressive and problematic issues. Firstly, the trend for cash-strapped local government to tighten eligibility criteria, in order to ration services and save money, means that people have to become much more "critically in need" (very ill and completely incapable, basically) than ever before, if they are to get any social services at all. There is no longer the space to offer preventative services; instead service rationing means support becomes akin to an emergency service, arriving just as lives collapse into chaos.

Secondly, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is hearing more and more concern from members that the personalisation agenda (totting up a sum of money for care that can go directly to the service user rather than automatically providing services through the local authority system) is being used as a cost cutting measure, rather than improving care services by facilitating more 'personal' and tailored services.

Last year, the Commission on Funding of Care and Support, headed by Andrew Dilnot, concluded that up to £1.7bn in extra public support was needed to reform the system of care funding, yet the government appears unwilling to accept this.

A recent survey of BASW members showed that 81% of social workers have come across abuse in an adult residential care home, with 55% having experienced extreme abuse. More than 70% think that residential care is not fit for purpose and 80% think the Care Quality Commission inspection arrangements are far from adequate.

How is anything going to change when it is cost, not care, that is prioritised? The imminent adult social care white paper is a crucial opportunity to implement Dilnot's recommendations, but the indications are, with the current government mind-set, that the chance will go begging.

Social workers have a key role to play in all of this, in directing the personalisation agenda, blowing the whistle on poor care home standards and generally standing up for the service user.

As parliamentary evidence gathering for the adult social care white paper draws to a close on 1 May, the government must buck the trend of a society that is only too willing to wash its hands of older people by listening to Andrew Dilnot and by reassuring concerned families that it understands the gravity of the problem. The use of additional public money in the current climate is clearly sensitive but it is small change given the state this sector is in.

Ministers should remember that most families and elderly people don't have a bank balance like Rupert Murdoch's and need the state to play a stronger role.