The Budget’s £2 billion funding boost to social care is a significant move for the government. This is not due to the amount of money being put into social care – which represents only a fraction of the amount local authorities need. Rather, what’s important is what the funding represents: for the first time, the UK government has recognised that the social care system cannot go on as it is.
While previous governments have paid lip service to this fact by kicking off various inquiries and commissions (which have then invariably been ignored or postponed until everyone forgot about them) or a legislative tweak or two, no other administration has stumped up a lump sum of funding in such a high profile way.
The government must know that it won’t be able to bury so easily the results of an injection of cash from the Budget – spending will need to be monitored, and outcomes tracked. And in light of the imminent Universal Credit debacle, there is little appetite for throwing cash at a fundamentally compromised public service, so this money will be conditional on reform.
In an ideal scenario, a short-term funding boost would give local authorities and central government the breathing room they desperately need for a serious rethink on how social care functions in this country. Years of fire-fighting have left little room for strategic thinking, and it shows. But the government is actually exceptionally fortunate in that most of the brainstorming around alternative funding models for social care – those which generate sustainable, reliable funding – has already been carried out by academics, policy experts and economists, both inside and outside of Whitehall.
There are a variety of options to choose from, from lifetime savings (similar to pensions contributions), to asset-based loans payable from people’s estates, and combinations of everything in between. The government needs to weigh up the pros and cons, and have the political will to implement their option of choice.
Here, the tea leaves don’t look particularly promising. The Chancellor’s decision to rule out “Labour’s hated death tax”, before the green paper has even been written, doesn’t bode well. There’s no denying the political unpopularity of having to ask people to pay more for their own care – a prospect which, as our population ages rapidly, has become inevitable. With tough decisions lying ahead, every possible option must be on the table.
In the focus on funding shortfalls, it’s easy to forget that the social care system needs reform across the board. Councils have spent 17 per cent less on older people’s care in real terms since 2010, when the incoming coalition government announcement a raft of austerity-related cuts to public services. But during the same period, the number of people aged over 85 (those most likely to use care) increased by nine per cent. This represents an unstoppable trend, which will see not just our social care but also our NHS systems collapse without swift and decisive action.
The current system only kicks into gear when someone becomes ill or dependent. But we need to think more creatively and boldly about preventative health, encouraging independent living and peer-supported care, and begin a world-leading pilot programme to start to put some of these into practice. Let’s hope the breathing space this Budget injection has created will give both Whitehall and local authorities a few moments of precious time now to think carefully, not just about the “how” of funding, but the “what”.
Claudia Wood is the Chief Executive of the think tank Demos.