System-wide reform is often a slow process, but few sectors have waited for it as long as social care. In 1997, Tony Blair pledged at Labour Party Conference that he would put an end to older people having to sell their homes to pay for care. Two decades on and hundreds of thousands of families have continued to find themselves in that position. Today, more than 1.2 million older people aren’t receiving the care they need, and, as analysis by Independent Age has shown, there remains a real disparity in care quality across the country.
The General Election this year was the first time that the social care system has been at the forefront of public debate and was a key focus of the election campaign. But whilst the Conservative Party’s manifesto set out a proposal for the introduction of a care cap and a capital floor that could have been an opportunity for more people to pay less for their care, good intentions fast became bad politics. But the opportunities to fix the long-neglected care system remain. Independent Age, our charity partners and experts in care will continue push for a better solution to the challenges social care faces.
That said, the results of the General Election, as well as the demands of negotiating a Brexit deal, could make delivering domestic policy reforms of any kind difficult, let alone those likely to be controversial and require significant amounts of parliamentary time. The Labour Party insists that it is on ‘General Election footing’, and found that its criticisms of the Government’s health and care plans hit home during the campaign. Whilst the Government has promised a Green Paper on adult social care, the timeframe for this has not yet been announced. For any government, passing contentious and wide-ranging reforms can be a monumental challenge, but even more so for a minority government.
It seems then that the best chance for the social care system lies in a cross-party approach to policymaking. Working closely with a number of MPs including former Care Minister Norman Lamb, Independent Age has been working to convince parliamentarians that the only way to bring about sustainable and lasting change is by putting aside partisan politics and working together. Many of the failings of the care system are historic and many of the changes needed are fundamental; implementing the necessary reforms is a major challenge and implementation will need to be overseen by successive governments.
Whilst reaching a cross-party consensus is clearly ambitious the tide may now be turning. Independent Age’s recent polling of English constituency MPs conducted by ComRes, revealed that only 1 in 10 MPs in England (10%) believe that the current social care system is suitable for the UK’s ageing population. 86% of those surveyed agreed that cross-party consensus is needed to deliver a lasting settlement for health and social care, with four in ten strongly agreeing. Even more promising is the relative agreement between Conservative (84%) and Labour (88%) MPs for cross-party consensus.
These results should come as a wake-up call to the leadership of all parties. Three out of four MPs tell us that the care services in their constituency are not fit for purpose, and with an unprecedented number telling us that they see cross-party working as a way to pass the reforms that the system desperately needs, now is the time to act.
Rising above the fray of politics is difficult for all parties given the short-term focus of modern politics, but it is what constituents need and expect. Previous changes to pensions that left older people better off were only possible because both majority parties were able to come together to enact lasting reform. Whilst auto-enrolment presented difficulties for the Conservatives and the link with earnings was a challenge for Labour’s leadership, compromise and collaboration ensured that good legislation could be passed with meaningful input from across Parliament.
While there are certainly real obstacles facing older people when it comes to accessing good quality care, there are also opportunities to work to ensure the UK is prepared for a dramatic increase in the number of people and the length of time people need support in later life. Social care is too important an issue to play politics with, and the Government’s plans must be both ambitious and capable of creating a consensus across Parliament. Whilst that is a monumental challenge, simply neglecting to act, as so many successive governments have, is no longer an option.
Gabriel Gavin leads on public and parliamentary affairs as part of Independent Age’s policy and campaigns team.