The first piece of 'good news' comes as an advance leak from the Cabinet meeting planned for next Monday, which will see a recommendation backed by Cllr Sue Anderson - the Cabinet Member for Adults and Communities and a Yardley Liberal Democrat councillor - that Birmingham City Council should cease to supply hot meals on wheels to the elderly and vulnerable by 2012 and must push all those who currently receive a delivery of pre-packed frozen meals off to private providers by 2010.
Naturally, this is being spun as anything but a cost-cutting measure. Heaven forbid that anyone would dare suggest it. This is about improving choice. Forget the data in the report submitted to Cabinet that the frozen and hot services both enjoy approval ratings of 94% and 88% amongst their customers and that the proposed option is the least popular amongst current users. Forget the focus group data quoted in the same report:
The focus groups held indicated that service users were generally content with the ‘Meals on Wheels’ Service currently being provided by ‘Meals Direct’. Some worrying factors arose from the groups in response to the question ‘what would the implications be for you if there were no ‘Meals on Wheels’ service?’. Service users made comments such as ‘My family would be very concerned’, ’I would worry’, ‘I would go hungry or try to cook for myself’.
This has nothing at all to do with improving choice. A problem was highlighted with supplying BME customers with appropriate food options, but that is hardly insurmountable. Of far greater importance was the increasingly urgent need to spend £140k on repairs and maintenance to the Cook Freeze Centre.
Should we be surprised by this? Not really, given that a leaflet distributed across 45,000 Yardley homes by the Liberal Democrats - complete with a picture of Cllr Anderson on the front - came with a recommendation from their MP and councillors to choose a specific private sector supplier and no mention of the City Council at all. That's how much faith Cllr Anderson has in her own department.
This private supplier apparently charges £20 for five frozen meals including dessert, compared to the £12 charged by the City Council for five meals - a whopping 66% increase in costs. For only £16, five hot meals are provided. To put that into perspective, that means an annual cost of £1460 for a daily frozen meal provided by this company, as opposed to £876 through the City Council - a thumping £584 annual extra bill for the elderly.
That doesn't take into account the vital daily contact offered by the Meals Direct service - often this can be the only contact an elderly person may have during the day. Incidentally, this supplier doesn't appear to offer much, in the way of ethnically-appropriate meals, unlike the range available from Meals Direct.
This is nothing to do with increasing choice. This is about cost-cutting - another of those inaptly named 'Business Transformation efficiencies' and it will end up costing these service users more.