Media Release

Time for a proper market in social care

The social care system in England must be overhauled to function as a genuine and fair market, a think-tank says today.

The Social Market Foundation says that new regulation and rules are needed to help ensure care-users pay the right price for care, and providers supply the levels of care the country needs.

A briefing paper from the SMF argues that politicians and officials need to accept that social care in England is provided through a market system, with local councils and self-funded care-users buying care services from providers.

That market needs better regulation, the SMF said, urging ministers to create a new independent body to oversee care, setting rules for the minimum cost of care and identifying areas where an imbalance of demand and supply leads to unfair outcomes.

The SMF paper follows up on a 2017 market investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority, which recommended the creation of an “independent body” to oversee the care market.

Different purchasers of care services pay different prices, partly depending on their bargaining power

On average, wealthier care-users who fund their own care (known as self-funders) pay much more for care than local authorities who buy care for less wealthy users. Self-funders pay 41% more for their care per week than local authorities, equivalent to £236.

There can be good reasons for such differences, including the different services offered to self-funders. But wide differentials can indicate that local authorities are using a dominant position to drive down prices.

That has raised concerns about the future supply of care. Over the last five years, the social care sector has become more fragmented. Overall, the supply of residential care beds has reduced as some providers leave the market, while demand for care has increased.

The CMA found that there is a significant amount of uncertainty among providers about the shape of future policy and the level of local authorities’ fees. This uncertainty can lead to an absence of investment focused on provision for local authority residents, resulting in a lack of such capacity and, eventually, increased costs for local authorities when procuring care.

The SMF said that ministers should act to ensure a better-functioning market for care, by giving the Care Quality Commission new powers to oversee the market.  The SMF paper was sponsored by Bupa.

The CQC should be given four new tasks to deliver a better market in care, the SMF said:

  • National Guidelines: The CQC should create national guidelines for the minimum cost of social care services. It should be designed in a similar way to the NHS national tariff and allow for local variance in cost due to unavoidable differences.
  • Demand forecasting: The CQC should have a duty to provide government, local authorities and providers of social care with forecasts for future demand by need and place.
  • Cost of care forecasting: It should provide government and local authorities forecasts on how the cost of care delivery may change. This should account for changes in need, wages and other local costs. This would ensure that decisions on where to allocate social care funding is made based on the best available evidence.
  • Monitor competition: It should monitor levels of competition and concentration in residential care markets at a regional and local level and carry out regular assessments of the market power of both buyers (local authorities and self-funders) and sellers. This evidence would help ensure policymakers considering social care are properly informed.

James Kirkup, SMF Director said:

“Like it or not, care in England is provided in a marketplace, where buyers and sellers agree on the price paid in exchange for a service. Since we have a market for care, policymakers should do more to ensure that this market works fairly and properly, for the benefit of the people in it.

“There is not enough discussion about the care system as a market. Politicians need to do more to develop and implement policies that will make that market work in the long-term interests of users and the country as a whole. That means giving suppliers more certainty about future demand and prices, to help maintain the long-term supply of care.

“There can be good reasons for differences in the rates paid by local councils and self-funders, but if local authorities are in a position to drive prices down, they may end up jeopardising supply by forcing providers out of the market for local-authority funded care.”

Joan Elliott, Managing Director for Bupa Care Services, said:

“The pandemic has emphasised that the long-term sustainability of the care sector requires a well-funded system. However, if it is to be truly successful, it also requires structural changes such as those highlighted in this report.

“These findings are an important contribution to the ongoing debate about social care reform and, if adopted by the Government, will help ensure that the needs of residents, carers, providers and taxpayers are properly met.”


  • For an embargoed copy of the report, please contact Hannah Murphy, SMF Head of Events and Partnerships, – 07495 592370
  • To arrange an interview about the report, please contact James Kirkup, SMF Director, 


  • The SMF paper – A market for residential care services – is published at
  • The report is based on a Chatham House-terms roundtable of senior policymakers and experts convened by the SMF earlier this year.
  • The roundtable was sponsored by Bupa. The SMF retains full editorial independence and declares all its financial supporters.


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