Direct payments for disabled children’s social care: your top questions answered

7 mins read

Thursday 24 March 2022

Tags: q and a, social care

Last week’s Facebook Q&A about accessing direct payments for children’s social services in England was one of our most popular yet, with over 120 parent carers asking questions to our advisers. 

If you were there, we’d love to know what you thought about the support received! You can share your feedback with us in this quick 1-minute survey

The Q&A is also available to read in our private Facebook group, but we have rounded up some of the top questions below to help those who were unable to attend. 

1. How can I get direct payments and what can they be used for?

To access direct payments, your child will need to be assessed by social services so that your local authority can determine whether they are eligible for support. You can request an assessment yourself by contacting your local authority’s social services department using the template letter available on our website. 

If the local authority decides that your child is eligible for help, it will give you a personal budget to meet the assessed needs. This budget is an amount of money to spend based on how much it will cost to arrange the care and support your child needs. 

You can then choose to receive this money directly to buy and organise these services yourself. This must be spent to meet the agreed outcomes stated in your child’s care plan, such as: 

  • Getting help with your child’s personal care, for example bathing, dressing or eating, or help looking after them overnight. 
  • A sitter service to look after your child when you are out. 
  • Help for your child to access or use leisure facilities. 
  • Help with household tasks to free up your time to look after your child. 
  • A place at a day nursery or after-school care. 
  • Someone to accompany your child on holiday. 

It’s important to be aware that local councils can refuse to give personal budgets or direct payments if they are considered an inefficient or impractical use of resources. Find out more in our Services and Support parent guide and in our Personal Budgets factsheet.

2. Can I use direct payments to take my son on days out if he doesn’t have a personal assistant? 

You may be able to — especially now, as local authorities have been directed to adopt a flexible approach to how the care and support plan is delivered during the pandemic. 

The government recently issued guidance calling for more flexibility to provide family members with direct payments if care staff are unavailable or if there are Covid-related shortages. For example, if your personal assistant becomes sick and other arrangements can’t be put in place, friends and family members with sufficient training may be willing to help you.  

Their guidance says: “During this time, short-term emergency changes may be needed. Families or close friends who live with you may be asked to provide support beyond any unpaid care and support they may already be willing and able to provide. They may be willing to provide additional support on a voluntary basis for a short period of time – for example, while your PA recovers from sickness.”

However, you will need to speak to your child’s social worker first. If you feel it’s necessary for family members who live with you to become your paid care and support workers on a permanent or longer-term basis, this also needs to be discussed and agreed with the local authority. 

3. What should I do if my child’s direct payments are not enough to meet his assessed needs?

The direct payment must be sufficient to meet the needs that your child has been assessed as having and the agreed outcomes in their care and support plan. It also requires local authorities to ensure that the allocated amount includes all the costs associated with employing your own staff. 

You have a right to get an explanation of how your direct payment budget was calculated and how it is enough to meet your needs. If you think your direct payment is not enough, the first step you should take is to ask for this explanation and challenge it. 

A breakdown of estimated expenditure will help clarify how the money given would be sufficient for the agreed activity or services to be purchased. Various systems are used by local authorities to provide the money, but the underlying factor is that the money must be enough to cover the cost of all support the local authority has agreed to provide. 

4. I was told my child is only eligible for 3 hours of care support per week because he is aged under 8. Is there an age-based limit to the number of care hours that direct payments can cover? 

Younger children can have direct payments as long as they have been assessed by social services as eligible for social care support. There is no specified amount or limit — the amount should be enough to meet all the costs involved in arranging services that social services have agreed for your child. 

We don’t have working knowledge of how each authority operates the direct payment scheme, so we are unable to comment on the method used by specific local councils. It may help to contact a local advice and support services for parents where you live. 

If you disagree with your local authority’s decision to limit his care support hours, you can make a complaint by following the advice on our website. 

5. I can’t find a personal assistant who can look after my son for £9.50 per hour, which is the maximum salary his personal budget can cover. How can I ask the local authority for more money?  

The direct payment must be an amount sufficient to meet the needs and level of support that your child has been assessed as having. 

A carer’s salary is comparative to what is applicable within your local authority. If you are unable to find suitable carers in your local area that fit within your budget, please contact the local authority to ensure that the amount received compares to the hourly rate of pay within your local area. 

You may need to make a complaint if the authority disagree with you. In that case, we would strongly suggest getting support and advice from an independent organisation in your local area. 

6. Can my local authority ask for a direct payment back if I didn’t spend all of it? 

Government guidance on using direct payments published in February 2022 states that unspent money should continue to be made available to you to manage your child’s care and support in the way that works for them during this time, keeps them safe, and meets their health and wellbeing needs. 

If you have spent less money than usual during the pandemic, local authorities should not permanently reduce the amount allocated to you. Government guidance recognises that this is an uncertain time and says people should not be penalised for deviating from a care and support plan to ensure needs are met. 

However, local authorities can still ask for a repayment if the direct payment was not used to meet the assessed need or in the way agreed. We recommend informing your LA of the reasons for the underspend, any challenges faced, and how you propose to utilise the unspent money to benefit your child and meet the initial need it was intended for.