Paying for care services (for yourself or someone you’re caring for) with direct payments from your local council gives you independence, choice and control. But managing a care budget is also a responsibility.
What are direct payments?
If your local council (or your Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland) agrees to fund some or all of your care services, you’ll be offered the choice of:
- The council providing services directly to you
- Receiving direct payments from the council, and arranging and paying for care services yourself
If you choose to accept direct payments from the council, you can always change your mind later on, and ask the council to provide services to you directly instead. You might do this if you were finding it difficult to manage the payments, for example.
Are direct payments means tested?
Yes - how much you get depends on your financial circumstances, and you might need to top them up with money of your own.
Read our guide: Local authority funding for care costs – do you qualify?
Getting a social care assessment
To receive direct payments, you first need to contact your local council or trust to ask them to assess your care needs.
How a local authority care needs assessment works
How do direct payments work and what can you use them for?
Direct payments go straight into your bank, Post Office, building society or National Savings account, but you can’t just spend the money on anything.
The council has to be satisfied that the payments are going towards the care services agreed in your care plan.
A care plan is a written agreement between you and your health professional and/or social services to help you manage your health and wellbeing day to day.
The care plan is based on what you want, so you’re in control.
You can have a care plan review at least once a year. You can also ask for a review if you feel the care plan isn’t working or if other things in your life change.
Direct payments could be for you if:
- you want to retain or take control of your own care and support services
- you want more choice in selecting the products and services that meet your specific needs
- you’re confident with money and paperwork or have people to support you with this
- you’re happy to keep receipts and invoices and submit these to social services on time
Direct payments are probably not for you if:
- you’re uncomfortable about being an employer – you might need to manage the people who care for you, although help to make these arrangements is available
- you’re not confident about keeping careful records and safely filing important documents such as receipts, although help to make these arrangements is available
- you spend frequent or long periods in hospital
- you’re happy to let your local authority provide you with care services
How much will I get as a direct payment?
The direct payment must be enough to meet the needs that your local council has assessed you as having.
If you use your direct payment to pay for a care worker, there may be extra costs involved (for example, recruitment costs, employer pension contributions, income tax). The direct payment must be enough to meet these costs.
However, depending on your financial circumstances, you might have to contribute towards the cost of your care. This will be decided by a local authority means test or financial assessment.
Find out more in our guide ‘Means tests for help with care costs - how they work’.
How to apply for direct payments
If you already receive care services, ask your local council about direct payments.
If you’re applying for care services for the first time, your social worker should discuss the direct payments option with you when they assess your care needs.
If you live in England, Wales or Scotland apply for direct payments via the GOV.UK website.
If you live in Northern Ireland, find out more about direct payments on the nidirect website
Managing direct payments to pay for care
If you’ve opted to receive direct payments, the next step is to work out which providers and services you’d like to use.
There are rules set out by the local authority to make sure that everyone does this in a safe and fair way.
- You must keep receipts to show how the budget is spent and show these to social services if they ask you to.
- You must only spend the money on care and support services that meet the specific needs agreed in your care plan.
- If you can’t account for everything you spend, or you use the money for things not in your care plan, you could be asked to reimburse your local authority.
- You can’t use direct payments to pay for informal care from a spouse, partner or close relative who lives with you, unless they’re registered as a carer.
- You can’t use direct payments to pay for permanent residential accommodation, but you might be able to use them to pay for occasional short periods in residential accommodation if your council agrees that is what you need.
The rules for direct payments vary around the country.
Speak to your social worker or contact your council to find out how regional variations affect you.
Get support to manage direct payments
Your local authority can provide support with managing your direct payments.
Alternatively, many local voluntary organisations and social enterprises provide tailored support with managing your direct payments and putting together your care plan. These organisations are independent from the local authority.
Disability Rights UK (formerly the National Centre for Independent Living) has a helpline, which offers advice about direct payments and employing a carer.
If you’re in Northern Ireland, you might also want to:
If you can’t manage your own direct payments
If you can’t manage your own finances, direct payments can be paid into a trust and managed by the trustees who could be family members, friends or professionals.
Read our article on setting up a trust.
Using direct payments to employ a carer
If you use your direct payments to employ a carer, you’ll take on certain responsibilities as an employer.
That means you’ll have to think about tax, National Minimum Wage, sickness and holiday pay, pension, and liability insurance.
If that sounds a bit daunting, there are people and organisations that can help:
- Look at local firms who offer payroll services. They’ll handle tax and National Insurance contributions for a fee.
- Think about using a home care agency rather than employing someone yourself. They’ll deal with all the paperwork, including references and criminal checks, and invoice you directly.
- Speak to a Carers Direct helpline adviser on 0300 123 1053 if you would like help with finding local support.
Ask your social services department about local home care agencies and check them out with the relevant regulator:
Read our guide ‘Employing a carer or personal care assistant’.
Comparing products and services
Even if you’ve decided to purchase care and support products and services yourself, you can still ask social services for help and advice. They’ll be able to tell you about local providers and preferred suppliers, so you can shop around for the best deal.
Keeping records of what you spend your direct payments on
If you receive direct payments you’ll need to keep track of the money you spend.
Your council will tell you what information you’ll be expected to provide (such as timesheets signed by carers, receipts for equipment or invoices from home care agencies), as well as how and when to submit this information to them.
You might want to set up a bank account specifically to receive your direct payments and pay for care. If you do this, it’s easy to keep track of your spending and you can then submit the full bank statement to your local council.
What to do if your circumstances change
Don’t delay in telling your council or trust about a change in circumstances – it could mean you get more money.
If your needs change, contact your council as soon as possible so that they can reassess the level of payments you need – you might be entitled to more money.
Alternatively, if you don’t need to spend the full amount because your condition improves temporarily, or you go into hospital, they might need to reduce your payments.
If you don’t want to continue with direct payments
If you decide you don’t want to manage direct payments yourself any more, your council has a legal duty to arrange services instead.
Similarly, if the council decides you can’t manage with direct payments, they might decide to provide services directly if there isn’t anybody close to you who can take over managing the payments.