Meals on wheels price rise threat

A LARGE increase in meals on wheels prices in Essex will leave many vulnerable pensioners unable to afford to buy the dinners, it was claimed last night.

By Juliette Maxam

A LARGE increase in meals on wheels prices in Essex will leave many vulnerable pensioners unable to afford to buy the dinners, it was claimed last night.

Essex County Council wants to put up the cost of meals on wheels dinners by 52%, from £2.30 to £3.50.

The rise is due to “unprecedented demand” for the meals, which are heavily subsidised by the council - with the average cost of each dinner about £4.29 - and an increase in the number of people supported in their own homes.

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But yesterday the Conservative administration at County Hall was accused of “managing demand by pricing people out of the market” by Liberal Democrat group leader Tom Smith-Hughes.

He said: “Nearly 60% of the old and disabled people who received meal on wheels would not be prepared to pay more than £3 for a meal - and that is the finding from the council's own research carried out only last year.

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“Over half of the recipients of meals at home are over 75 years of age and have only a fixed income that cannot easily accommodate such a dramatic hike for meals.

“If old and disabled people are to keep their independence by staying in their own homes, this will become difficult when faced with increasingly higher care bills.”

Labour spokeswoman for adult social care Julie Young said: “I think it's horrific to increase the charge to that level.

“I think a lot of people will not have the meals on wheels that they currently have. The main service will become under threat because numbers will drop. It's a really bad move.”

Braintree Pensioners Action Group chairman Phyllis Webb said: “To put something up that people are reliant on by such a lot in one jump, I don't think it's on.”

Since Essex County Council took over the provision of meals county-wide from the districts in April 2002, providing a seven-day service throughout the year, the number of monthly deliveries has risen from 43,000 to 77,000.

The number of pensioners in Essex over the next five years is expected to grow rapidly and since 2003, the budget for supporting people in their own homes, rather than in residential care, has risen by 34.5% cent in the county.

Sarah Candy, cabinet member for adult social care, said: “Our services to older people are expanding as people live longer and expectations grow. We are very proud of the number of people we support in their own homes, and of the steps we have taken to improve the meals on wheels service since taking it over.

“However, if you subsidise a service and that service then booms in popularity, your costs will obviously increase markedly. So if we are to grow this service to respond to demand, we must consider limiting the subsidy we provide.

“The council's grant from central government has only increased by 2%, and we propose to keep the increase in the council tax to 4.6%. However we still propose to increase our adult social care budget by 11% for the coming year, underlining our commitment to providing an outstanding service.

“We will continue to subsidise meals on wheels to the very best of our ability, but we must balance the provision of this excellent service with our responsibility to provide a full spectrum of services to older people in Essex.”

The proposed increase will be tabled as part of the council's budget considerations, taking place between now and the cabinet meeting on February 14, when a final decision will be reached. It would come into force in April.

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