Margaret Wheeler on the government’s continued dithering over proper funding for the social care sector
A three-hour debate in the House of Lords this week on the devastating impact of Covid-19 on adult social care, saw the government repeat its promise to publish a plan for the urgent reform of the sector.
On becoming Prime Minister 18 months ago, Boris Johnson pledged to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan that we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve”. But the Minister replying to the debate showed there never was and still isn't a ‘clear plan’ – just a series of broken promises, a raft of excuses, and panicked, sticking plaster cash injections to prevent the system from collapse. So, this latest promise of a plan – sometime this year, apparently – is not much of a reassurance.
The hook for the debate was a report from the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee – Social Care Funding: time to end a national scandal. Reflecting on the scale of funding needed to begin to address both current and unmet need, and future demand, the Committee’s recommendations include a call for local authority funding for social care to be restored to 2010 pre-austerity levels; the ending of councils’ dependence on locally raised finance; a new £7bn a year system to help those receiving free personal care more mobile and active in their communities; and a New Deal for the workforce involving major investment.
The additional funding called for by the Committee is based on research from the Health Foundation, the Kings Fund and ADASS, the association representing social care directors. Together, they suggest £1.5bn extra is needed this year to allow councils to maintain levels of service provision from five years ago, as well as a further £2.4bn to stop the funding gap from widening even further.
While welcoming periodic cash injections into social care, they are often announced during the depths of a crisis – arriving too late to make a real difference, and merely buying a few months more of shoring up already fragile services. Local authorities, meanwhile, are being asked to do the impossible.
As expected, this crucial point was studiously avoided by the Minister. Even though the report was “remarkable”, and the Committee had performed a “huge service”, it was obviously – in the government’s view – wrong. Despite strong evidence presented to the contrary, the Minister insisted that councils’ Care Act responsibilities meant they were properly funded and able to meet all eligible current and unmet care needs. And able to negotiate a fair rate of pay for domiciliary and care home staff, and care staff.
Labour’s calls for reassurances that the domiciliary home care services – the front line of social care - will be urgently expanded to meet increased need arising from Covid-19 and unmet demand, went unanswered. So too was a call for a full breakdown of the social care services and activities suspended under the Coronavirus Act; along with questions on the financial unsustainability of the residential system, with local authorities unable to meet the real costs of care places.
The Government has said it is looking for consensus on a way forward for social care. Yet this already exists, and the Committee’s report is backed by stakeholders, those working in the community, and politicians on all sides and none. Indeed, at Parliament, the message is clear that the time for consultations and green paper promises is over. What we need now, and urgently so, is white paper solutions and actions followed by legislation to deal with what is clearly a national scandal.
Baroness Margaret Wheeler is Shadow Social Care Minister in the House of Lords
Published 29th January 2021