Queen’s Speech is social care’s defining test – Andrew Vine

IT will be interesting to see if the 
Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, is wearing his green “care” badge on the lapel of his suit as he listens to today’s Queen’s Speech.

Boris Johnson promised a 'cear plan' for social care on the day that he became Prime Minister, but where is it?
Boris Johnson promised a 'cear plan' for social care on the day that he became Prime Minister, but where is it?

If he is, it might be an indication that the Government’s proposals for the next session of Parliament finally include some measures for tackling the social care crisis.

If he isn’t, it could be a subtle indicator that the issue is once again being kicked down the road, because it’s just too difficult and costly, at up to £5bn a year.

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My money’s on the latter. And so is that of those in the care sector, for whom the badges on their own lapels are a symbol of commitment to society’s most vulnerable people, not an accessory to be worn or discarded according to the occasion.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

This Government is guilty of failing those carers, and the people they look after. Its prevarication over tackling the ever-worsening state of social care is scandalous.

It is also deceitful. When Boris Johnson took up residence in 10 Downing Street, he stood at the lectern outside and promised to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.

That was on July 24, 2019. Almost two years on, where is this plan? What does it propose? The country took him at his word, and he misled us, because there is no settled notion of how to address the crisis.

Ideas are periodically floated, including a £50,000 cap on care costs, an “over-40s tax” similar to that applied in Germany and making over-65s pay national insurance.

Will social care reform be included in the Queen's Speech?

But still, there is nothing resembling the “clear plan” the Prime Minister said was in place.

Yesterday, a cross-party letter from the Local Government Association urged the Chancellor to make funds available to address the crisis, saying a failure to do so would be “a bitter blow”.

It echoed last week’s impassioned plea from the North Yorkshire-based Independent Care Group for measures to be announced in the Queen’s Speech.

The statistics they quoted should be more than enough to spur Mr Johnson to action – £8bn cut from social care budgets in the past decade, 1.5 million people living without adequate help, 100,000 unfilled vacancies and 1,000 care homes at risk of closure.

It isn’t as if money cannot be found in a crisis. The ICG made the valid point that £37bn has been blown on an ineffective track-and-trace system for Covid- 19 that was lambasted by MPs as a waste of money.

Set against that, the cost of fixing social care is relatively modest, yet the Government dithers over a crisis that grows worse with each passing month. It is inexorably driving councils towards ruin, with more than half of local authority budgets being spent on care.

The Nuffield Trust predicts that a funding gap of £18bn between what is spent and required will open up by 2030 if the Government doesn’t act. There is a public demand for that to happen. Yesterday, polling by care charity MHA found 69 per cent of people wanted the issue to be the Government’s top priority. Those with relatives in need of care know only too well the toll this crisis is taking.

Families are sinking into debt to meet care costs and, in 21st century Britain, we have elderly people who in their twilight years are not getting the help they need with the fundamentals of eating, washing and dressing.

This cannot continue. It is unacceptable on grounds of basic human dignity to allow such a state of affairs in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. And after a year of Covid in which the care sector made herculean efforts to protect the frail elderly, it is morally unacceptable to deny it the resources it so desperately needs.

The applause that rang out across the nation for carers as well as the NHS every Thursday night for weeks showed the public’s appreciation for all they do, and there is a completely justifiable expectation that Mr Johnson acts.

There can be no short-term fixes, no pot of money chucked at care in the hope of quelling concerns for now, only for the problems to resurface a few months later. That has happened under successive governments, and it won’t wash.

If Mr Johnson is to make good on his promise to fix social care, he must come up with a long-term strategic plan and be frank with the country about what it will cost and how it is to be paid for.

Platitudes about how much he values carers, and downright falsehoods about having a detailed plan in place aren’t good enough. If there is no commitment today to tackle of the most urgent problems facing Britain, it will amount to an unforgiveable failure of Government policy. And in those circumstances, for ministers to sport care badges whilst doing nothing to help those they commemorate amounts to rank hypocrisy.

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