Health authorities and trusts have been urged not to give up on poorly performing social services departments, following health minister John Hutton’s announcement that 17 are failing so badly they are on an ‘at risk’ register.

The government’s determination to raise standards in social care was underlined last week when Mr Hutton said that one in 10 departments was causing ministers ‘great concern’.

Unless they improved, he warned, the government could transfer them to other local authorities.

The move has raised the prospect that the government may take a similarly tough line with underperforming NHS bodies, when the next health indicators are published before the end of the year.

Mr Hutton made his remarks at the launch last week of the first performance assessment framework indicators for social services, which revealed wide variations in performance between local authorities.

Three of the indicators concerned the interface between health and social care, in areas such as delayed discharge from hospital, and were drawn from data supplied by HAs.

‘The idea of using data from HAs to reflect on the performance of social services departments is interesting and quite original. It’s also sensible - these are shared problems, ’ said Dr Kieran Walshe, senior research fellow at Birmingham University’s health services management centre.

But in a joint statement to HSJ , Wirral HA and Wirral social services department emphasised that their place at the top of the delayed discharge from hospital table was based on out of-date data.

‘There have been problems with high levels of delayed discharges in the past. For 1999-2000 we are on target to maintain our much reduced levels of delayed discharges, ’ the statement says.

Janice Robinson, director of community care at the King’s Fund, said NHS organisations should find it ‘very interesting’ if their local social services department was revealed by the indicators to be in ‘grave difficulties’ .

‘Don’t give up on them. Work even harder. These (issues) are so intertwined.’ she said.

Ms Robinson said it was ‘absolutely right and proper’ that the underperforming local authorities had been named. ‘It would be iniquitous if this only applied to local authorities, which have taken a fair amount of bashing. It seems to me that HAs, trusts and primary care groups should also be named.’

Problems in east London were spotlighted by the inclusion of Hackney in the list of 17 ‘at risk’ social services departments, and the relatively high rate of emergency hospital admissions for elderly people, revealed in information supplied by the HA.

Kevin Barton, acting chief executive of East London and the City HA, said: ‘We are aware of the difficulties faced by Hackney social services and have been working closely with them and local NHS trusts to ensure that patient care is not affected. (The relatively high emergency admission rate) reflects the high health and social care needs of the local population.’

Michael Hake of the Association of Directors of Social Services said he hoped the indicators would spark ‘sensible discussion’ between social services and health.

Social Services Performance in 1998-9 .

www.doh.gov.uk/public/ stats3.htm

Poor per formers

The 17 authorities causing ‘great concern’ are:

Barking and Dagenham

Hackney

Ealing

Lambeth

Hillingdon

Barnsley

Cambridgeshire

North East Lincolnshire

Peterborough

Sheffield

Bury

Buckinghamshire

Coventry

Kingston-upon-Hull

Sefton

Wirral

Newcastle upon Tyne