Sheffield Council chiefs have been accused of hitting the city’s oldest and most vulnerable residents with ‘unaffordable’ charges for an emergency alarm service.
Some 8,700 people subscribe to the Care4You 24-hour service – many of whom did not have to pay before April this year.
However, the authority is now asking all subscribers, including those on the basic state pension of just £110.15 a week, to pay a charge of £20.90 per month.
The fees include a 15 per cent surcharge to cover ‘administration costs’ – 50 per cent higher than Government guidelines which say such overheads should be no more than 10 per cent.
The council says the £273,000 administration cost, which is on top of an £1.835 million annual bill to actually run the service, is ‘legitimate’ and for ‘payroll costs, IT costs, invoicing, heating, internal auditing and more’.
The council says it needs to charge all Care4You users due to Government cuts.
However, pensioners believe it should look at making savings elsewhere – such as axing more full-time trade union officials and political advisers, who are still funded through council tax, despite services closing.
Widower Neville Platts, aged 77, of Manor Top, said: “The charges are shocking. The council should look at cutting other costs for things which are not actually providing a public service before doing something like this.
“The costs are unaffordable. It is not fair to ask old age pensioners for this sort of money when they did not have to pay at all before.”
The retired industrial worker, who has needed an alarm after suffering ill health for several years, said: “The council is blackmailing pensioners by saying if they cannot afford to pay they will take their alarm away. Many are fearful about what would happen to them then if they had an emergency.”
He said his sister, Mavis MacCaslin, is being told she has to pay for her alarm, even though she is currently a long-term patient in the Northern General Hospital in Fir Vale – or it will be removed.
Mr Platts said: “It’s appalling. She has been told she has to pay up even though she is not using the alarm at the moment - or it will be taken away.
Robert MacDonald, of Sheffield 50+ campaign group, who helped set up the alarms service in the 1980s while working for the council, said: “The most vulnerable people ought not to be having these kind of charges. They are a lot of money for someone on the basic state pension.
“I am concerned to hear about users being asked to pay the council more than the actual cost of the system.”
The Care4You service used to be free, but 5,000 new users have been forced to pay since 2010, while 3,700 existing customers had subscription charges introduced last month.
The charges will bring in a total of £2.109 million in the 2013/14 financial year – but the council has admitted the actual cost of running the service is £1,835,108.
The cost breaks down into £1,299,108 for Care4You ‘delivery and management’ including on-call staff and £536,000 to run the call centre.
The leftover £273,492, equivalent to an additional 15 per cent, subsidises overheads.
The council said the overheads are ‘legitimate costs of running an organisation’ and are higher than Government guidelines due to the ‘complications’ of running a 24-hour service.
The authority has refused to reconsider its charges.
Coun Mary Lea, cabinet member for adult social care, said: “The cost is about 68p a day – just more than the cost of a stamp – and we believe the quality and range of options we offer makes our service great value for money.
“It is a 24-hour service, the only service of its type in Sheffield that offers a response service day and night, where we’ll send someone out to people if they get into difficulties.”
She said some users could be eligible for help from the council’s Social Care Support fund and should call 0114 293 0425 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.