By Samantha Washington
Donal MacIntyre show, BBC Radio 5 live
Irene Simons was exploited by her carer who stole thousands of pounds
The planned roll-out of direct payments for social care will put vulnerable people at risk, campaign groups warn.
The Department of Health wants all adults in England to be given the money to manage and pay for their own care by 2011.
But public sector union Unison says this strategy will put some people at risk of abuse and exploitation.
Health officials insists the system offers choice which can transform people's lives.
Personal budgets are a new way of administering social care which builds on the previous direct payments scheme. This allows people to claim the cost of their care as cash, instead of receiving the care from their local authority.
The government wants all users of social care in England to have personal budgets by 2011. For many, this will mean they are responsible for employing their own care staff.
Individuals will have the right to opt out of the system, but local authorities are encouraging take-up. Similar schemes exist in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
However, campaigners have told the BBC they are concerned about the impact of expanding the direct payments model.
A recent survey from Unison, the UK's largest public sector union, found that 62% of social workers polled believe the roll-out of "cash for care" will undo a lot of the progress made towards protecting vulnerable adults.
"Whilst the new system will work really well for some people, others need good reliable care, not cash," Unison's Helga Pile warned.
She worries about those left to negotiate "the minefield" of becoming an employer on their own.
"Social workers fear this will result in an increase in the number of safeguarding vulnerable adult cases - or a 'granny P' tragedy waiting to happen."
Irene Simons shares those fears - she was one of the first recipients of direct payments in 1997.
Instead of getting the council to provide carers, she opted to get the cash and arrange them herself but she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
"This person rang me up and said she'd heard I was getting direct payments, and that she'd come and work for me. I took her on because I didn't know what it would mean," she told Radio 5 live's Donal MacIntyre programme.
Helen Bailey quickly became indispensable, looking after the severely-disabled woman's every need.
But she also remortgaged her client's house after forging her signature, and stole thousands more by falsely claiming her husband shared caring duties.
Irene Simons' relatives believe about £150,000 was taken in total.
The exploitation was only uncovered when Irene's sister Jennifer moved back to the area. She believes Birmingham City Council should have managed the care directly.
She said: "Don't just give somebody the money to hire their own carers. If that person is not capable, then the council needs to give somebody that job."
Birmingham City Council says its systems have improved since Irene Simons' case came to light.
"What we're now trying to do is offer a range of options that will allow people greater control over risks," said Peter Hay, director of adults and communities.
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Helen Bailey was jailed in August for 18 months. Irene says she will never risk hiring a non-family carer again.
The Action on Elder Abuse charity argues that Irene Simons' story highlights the risks at the core of this funding model and says its helpline is already getting more calls as a result of the changes.
Like many in her position, Irene Simons did not carry out a full vetting check when she employed Helen Bailey. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the magazine Community Care, less than half of those receiving direct payments did proper vetting of those they hired.
And although domestic employers like Ms Simons will be able to take advantage of the government's new vetting and barring scheme - designed to stop unsuitable people working with vulnerable adults and children - it will not be compulsory to do so.
The Department of Health told Radio 5 live that it has issued guidance to local authorities on how to assess if there is a risk to the person opting for direct payments, and insists that safety concerns are important.
A spokesman said: "Safeguarding people in vulnerable situations remains a priority but must be balanced with the genuinely transformational opportunities presented by direct payments".
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