Individual needs are at the heart of Byrne’s vision of adult social care

Liam Byrne  
Two months into the job as care services minister, Liam Byrne talks to Simeon Brody about the adult green paper follow-up, his plans for the social care workforce and new technology.

Care services minister Liam Byrne appears to be keeping his cards close to his chest when asked about the future of the adult green paper.

“We’ve got to wait until the national consultation finishes and we’ll need a bit of time to reflect on what people have said to us,” he says.

But read between the lines and it seems clear the radical agenda set out in the green paper is not going to be ditched before it reaches the white paper stage, as some had feared, nor diluted.

Byrne says the excitement he expressed at Community Care Live in May at taking up his new ministerial brief has only been confirmed after two months in the job.

“I think there’s a real sense that the sector is at a turning point. There’s a sense that the profile of social care is changing very quickly. Social care is at the heart of what the government is trying to do over the next four to five years.”

The turning point must surely be the green paper and the direction of turn is likely to be revealed as early as next week.

Byrne will address a Department of Health green paper conference on Thursday 21 July and promised he would clarify more about his future plans then. A green paper “follow-up”, although not defined, is referred to several times, and must surely be on its way.

Many would argue that the success of the green paper follow-up will ultimately depend on the level of resources made available to implement it. It was initially described by the government as “cost-neutral” and Byrne says he believes much of it still is.

But he adds: “The question is not whether the green paper can be delivered on a cost-neutral basis. The broader question is what is the right spending package for social care more generally. That’s a debate we will have during the spending review.”

Byrne says the process of consultation around the green paper will identify where extra resources are required and so the lobbying for more funds can be “twin-tracked” with the green paper follow-up.

“The next spending review will be extremely tight and I think if we identify areas where we need to ask for more money we will need to be very specific about what we are asking for money for and in return what we are promising to deliver.”

Some of the fundamental questions around the implementation of the green paper are clearly still under consideration. When asked about the possibility of setting up a direct payments agency, Byrne says it is “one of a number of questions we want to look at”.

“There are lots of very complex questions that we have to understand. One is how you translate someone’s entitlement to services into a cash payment.”

Byrne might still be getting to grips with some of the more complex technical issues but when it comes to the social care workforce he believes “there’s a great deal of work ahead of us”.

“If we are serious about delivering dignity for life then it’s important we have a workforce that’s well qualified, well trained and well motivated. A lot of people are anxious to move forward on workforce issues because they realise how key they are to realising our ambitions for social care.”

He believes the same priority should be given to the adult social care workforce as to the children’s workforce. Whether we can expect a new qualifications framework for professionals working with adults, as is being introduced for the children’s workers, will also be revealed next Thursday.

Of course in the shiny new social care future some believe technology will play almost as important a role as the workforce. And technology is an issue that Byrne appears genuinely passionate about.

“We are ambitious to bring the possibilities of independent living to as wide a group of people as we can. To deliver dignity and independent living we’ve got to do more to enable people to live independently in their homes.”

Byrne will issue guidance on the extended use of telecare next week, building on the £80m government is investing in the technology – which allows need to be communicated and monitored remotely. And he will announce a number of pilots later this year, investigating how technology can prevent older people having accidents in the home.

“I just know from what I’ve seen what promise it has,” he argues. “Telecare allows someone to live independently at home because it puts them at the centre of a network that encompasses social care services and their family and what people said to me is that it just meant that they had something incredibly precious, which is peace of mind.”

While the minister is keen on technology, he is less enthusiastic to discuss systems and models of government. Rather than talking about whether direct payments or individualised budget might be the norm in a green paper world, he asserts that we must start from a “resident-centric view”.

“We’ve got to look at the people we are trying to help and work backwards from that point,” he says.

Questions about whether the Supporting People programme might sit better in the DH and how it might link with the green paper draw the response that this is a “government-centric analysis of the issue”.

Byrne says his concern is to make sure the issues are thought through from the perspective of the people receiving services.

“Until I think we’ve got the individual budgets pilots fully mapped out I think it’s very difficult to answer that question. Until we have a very clear grasp of what different groups are encountering as problems when they access benefits we can’t really come to grips with what the right administrative arrangements are.”

And the discussions about social care versus medical models of mental health services are also secondary when the focus is firmly on the individual – a strong theme in the Byrnesian world view.

“In the 21st century what are needed are public services that are flexible enough to integrate around very specific individual needs,” he concludes.

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