The consumer watchdog contacted 50 homes on the premise of looking for care for an elderly relative and requested documents including a sample contract – but fewer than one in 10 provided the information.
Which?’s investigators received four contracts – three of which included terms that could be considered unfair to residents – including charging fees for a month after death and the right to terminate a contract with 24 hours notice for undefined “detrimental behaviour”.
The other 46 homes refused to send a sample contract, in many cases urging our investigators to visit or directing them to websites that did not provide the information.
When Which? received reports from more than 500 members of the public about their experiences with care home contracts, only 54 per cent said the provider checked if they understood the document they signed.
More than a quarter (27 per cent) said no-one from the care home checked if they understood the terms and conditions, while 19 per cent said they did not know if checks were made.
Of those who said no checks were carried out, almost a third (31 per cent) said they did not understand the contract at all, or did not understand it very well.
Although most people in Which?’s care arrangers survey (81 per cent) claimed to understand their care home contract well – there was confusion around important terms.
Four in 10 (38 per cent) said they did not know if their care home could evict a resident without giving a reason and more than a third (34 per cent) said they did not know whether the home could evict a resident without giving the notice period stated in the contract.
Three in 10 (31 per cent) did not know if the home could charge fees after a resident vacated a room, possibly because they had died.
More than a third (34 per cent) said they did not know whether the home could evict a resident without giving the notice period stated in the contract.
Any care home that fails to provide prospective residents and their families with important information they need to make an informed decision risks being in breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.
Which? believes the lack of transparency over contracts leaves potentially vulnerable people open to exploitation – and sees them in some cases hit with exorbitant bills or led to believe they are tied into unfair terms and conditions they would never have knowingly agreed to.
Our Care Needs Care Now campaign has heard stories about the care system from more than 1,000 people – with some claiming stress linked to unfair contract terms contributed to a loved one’s death or made their last years miserable.
Which?’s findings come days before a deadline for the Government to respond to the Competition and Markets Authority’s damning care home market study – Jeremy Hunt’s first big test since adding social care to his responsibilities as health secretary.
The CMA also raised concerns about care homes failing to provide contracts when asked and warned homes risk breaking consumer law – either by failing to give residents and families sufficient time to read contracts, or in some cases only giving them a contract after they have moved in or failing to let them see it at all.
While the upcoming Green Paper should address the badly-needed fundamental reform of the broken social care system later this year, Which? is calling on the Government to act now on the competition authority’s recommendations to strengthen consumer protections for care home residents and relatives including on contracts, unfair fees and evictions.
Alex Hayman, Which? Managing Director of Public Markets, said:
“It’s unacceptable that care homes are making it difficult for people to get hold of contracts and the terms and conditions they are signing up to when making such an important life decision.
“Far too many care home residents are hit with unexpected fees or contract terms – which can have far-reaching and devastating consequences for vulnerable people and their families at an already distressing time.
“The Government must now ensure the rules governing care homes are fit for purpose and adequately protect residents and their families in its upcoming response to the competition authority’s market study.”
Responding to the report, Cllr Linda Thomas, Vice Chair of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said:
“Arranging care and entering care contracts can be a stressful and emotional time, particularly when this has to be done at short-notice, so it is really important that individuals and their families are supported in this process and have the time needed to understand what they’re signing up to.
“Councils have duties to provide information and advice on the care system, the types of care available, providers and how to access support. This is part of a wider process of helping people through the care system, and providers have an important role to play in ensuring that people understand their care contracts and are comfortable with them. This is important for transparency, certainty, understanding and peace of mind.
“The long-awaited reforms promised following this summer’s Green Paper need to help people to plan for their or their loved ones’ future care needs while providing a sustainable funding solution to ensure they receive high-quality care which best meets their needs.”