Last month, Phillip Hammond opted not to introduce a new wealth tax to confront the present funding crisis afflicting the UK’s social care system. Instead, the Chancellor pledged a further £2 billion towards social care by 2020 – too inconsequential a sum to allay current fears or close the local government shortfall.
Ostensibly, health and social care are two halves of the same coin and the argument that both services should be administered via a single, integrated budget under the NHS’ purview seems logically sound. Doing so, however, would afford social care the same “sacred cow” status afforded to the NHS, thus causing public opinion to crystallise into the ardent belief that, like healthcare, social care must too be funded wholly by the taxpayer. Instead, amidst the challenge of caring for an ageing population that is not experiencing a concurrent increase in quality of life, the government must surely aim, as far as is possible, to divest responsibility for social care away from the state and towards those families that can care for their own.
Presently, elderly people with assets less than £14,250 have their care costs fully provided, while those with assets greater than £23,250 must meet the costs alone; those in between have assistance proportional to the value of their assets. Essentially, people who have diligently saved for retirement are penalised, while those who have given scant thought to their future needs are rewarded for their eventual impecunity. Most critically, no consideration is given as to whether the families of those requiring care are capable, partly or fully, of caring for their ageing or disabled relations.
Unlike the provision of medicine or surgery, social care often necessitates dependence not on licensed medical staff, but simply those who are capable or willing to look after another. Where it is indeed entirely possible to depend on one’s family for care, what conceivable reason, moral or otherwise, is there for expecting the state to instead shoulder the burden? To echo the sentiment of David Mowat MP, “nobody ever questions the fact we look after our children – that’s just obvious.”
While Westminster has ruminated on whether a new wealth tax might be the silver bullet that UK social care desperately needs, the Singaporeans have, for some years, granted tax relief and incentives to citizens who care for their own family: Aged Dependent Income Tax Relief is given to children or grandchildren who look after their parents or grandparents; the Multi-Tier Family Housing Scheme encourages co-residence by prioritising allocation for public housing to extended-family applications; and the Maintenance of Parents Act 1995 prevents children from financially neglecting their aged parents. Not only do these policies shift the burden of care away from the Singaporean state and promote social cohesion, they actually reward those who do what is indisputably the right thing, from both a moral and economic standpoint.
There is also scope to disseminate the responsibility of care throughout the various strata of society. Historically, the Church played a large role in assisting those in need but with its declining prominence in modern society the potential for reviving this is far diminished. However, older schoolchildren could be encouraged or compelled to perform social care. The International Baccalaureate program (an A-Level equivalent), for example, requires each student to complete a set number of hours of community service during their two sixth form years; surely something similar could be implemented in our own national curriculum?
Despite the chancellor rejecting a new wealth tax, the very fact it was considered shows the dire predicament the UK is in. Wealth taxes, as shown by the experience of numerous French farmers under Francois Hollande’s regime, run the risk of harming the poor and middle classes, while the wealthy few, armed with lawyers, are able to minimise their resulting tax contributions. The recent funding crises, in both social care and the NHS, highlight how the UK’s unwavering inflexibility towards, for instance, social insurance schemes (considered perfectly equitable in most countries) will threaten the economic future of younger generations and endanger those who have no family to assist them, and depend entirely on the state in their twilight years.
Current demographic trends are going to continue, and the government must tackle this problem head-on rather than simply kicking the can down the road until 2020. Incentivising families and communities to care for their elderly would be a start.