THOUSANDS of Scots who need social care are struggling with debt as a result of soaring care charges, according to new figures.

At least 15,000 people behind on social care payments and at least 6,000 of those accounts are in the hands of debt managers, according to data released by Scottish councils under Freedom of Information.

The GMB union, which represents care workers, carried out the investigation and claimed the issue was a "ticking time bomb" at the heart of the finances of individuals and families with care needs.

Four Scottish councils – Glasgow, Inverclyde, Scottish Borders and East Lothian, said they had taken someone to court over unpaid care fees last year. The total of cases pursued to court – just 11 – is much lower than in England, but the union said it was a worrying sign as no such cases had been taken in 2015/16.

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Charges for non-residential care have been introduced in many councils in recent years for services such as attending a day centre, telecare monitoring, sheltered housing and shopping services.

In the context of austerity budgets, local authorities which already charged for some or all of these services have chosen to increase the charges, or reduce the amount of an individuals income which they are allowed to keep before they begin being charged for care.

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Policies appear to vary widely. Inverclyde Council took legal action against one person last year, despite having just 154 accounts in arrears, while Glasgow City Council which has 2483 overdue accounts only pursued three to court.

Meanwhile charges continue to increase in many areas. Last Friday, Inverclyde introduced a new charge of £2.50 a week for elderly people who need a community alarm service, although it pointed out many other councils already charge for this service, and many charge more.

Overall, the GMB said at least 166,000 people across the UK are trapped in debt for their social care. In Scotland 64,080 invoices were issued by councils last year, of which 15,733 were in arrears.

Not all of these will be individuals, but as eight councils in Scotland – one quarter — did not respond to the FOI request, the union said 15,000 people were likely to be facing arrears even at a conservative estimate.

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Sharon Wilde, GMB National Officer, said: “These stark figures show the UK’s social care ticking timebomb has now blown a gaping hole in families’ finances.

“The fact more than 1,000 people have been taken to court because they’re unable to pay for their own care – or that of their loved ones – shows the system just isn’t working.

"Meanwhile, our ageing population is creating a huge demand for care staff - but caring is still not seen as a sought after career.

“The lack of local authority funding often means low pay - and the sector is struggling to recruit and retain the dedicated staff needed to provide the best care to the UK’s most vulnerable people.

“We need a clear, coherent strategy for funding social care now and in the future.

"Otherwise the struggle to recruit and retain carers will become even more acute, while tens of thousands of people are plunged into debt trying to pay for the level of support that they need.”

A spokesman for Inverclyde Council said: “We take the recovery of debt very seriously but will always endeavour to strike the right balance between personal circumstances, welfare and the pressure on public services.

“The simple fact is we have only proceeded with court action on one occasion over this period and will resolve the vast majority of cases without the need to take legal steps.”

Jeff Adamson, Chair of the campaign Scotland Against the Care Tax said, "We have known for a long time that social care charges drive disabled people

into poverty but these figures are truly shocking. Not only are people who come to councils seeking help at a time of crisis being driven into debt, councils then take them to court. This needs to stop."

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Councillor Peter Johnston, COSLA's Health and Wellbeing Spokesperson said: "It is undeniable that our social care services are under strain from an increase in demand and broad funding pressures on Local Government.

“COSLA upholds the principle of charging for some social care services on the basis that those who can afford to pay a contribution toward the cost of the care they receive, do so. We also believe that co-payment empowers a person’s ability to make choices with regard to the care they receive and any income raised through charging is invested back into social care.

“These figures clearly show that councils are supporting those who are in arrears to manage any debts, meanwhile local authorities are striving to reform adult social care to provide better quality, more efficient services in challenging times.

“We also recognise the workforce challenges and are working closely with partners to make social care a more attractive career.”