It’s been more than two years since House of Commons health select committee chair David Hinchliffe handed over the reins to Labour MP Kevin Barron. Yet in that time, the influential committee, set up to scrutinise the work of the Department of Health and its associated bodies, has failed to hold a single new inquiry into social care. Now there are concerns that, with health dominating the agenda, social care is in danger of falling off the radar.
Given that Hinchliffe is a qualified social worker, it is perhaps to be expected that social care secured more of the limelight on his watch. Under his tenure, between 2001 and 2005, the committee carried out five inquiries and published five reports into social care-related issues (see Changing priorities). By comparison, no social care issues have been investigated since 2005 and none is planned this year.
Hinchliffe says it is now time for the committee to be renamed the health and social care committee, as it was in the 1980s under Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, to ensure that social care subjects are not left out in the cold.
“Renaming the health select committee to take account of the element of social care for which the Department of Health is responsible would be appropriate,” he says.
Which subjects the committee looks into is decided by its members, but they are often based not just on the topical issues of the day but on how successful lobby groups are at championing their cause.
At any one time, the committee has 11 members. Only three from Hinchliffe’s era remain: Labour MPs Doug Naysmith and Jim Dowd, and independent Dr Richard Taylor.
Melanie Henwood (pictured right), a special adviser to the committee on social care issues and its relationship with health, believes the lack of continuity in committee membership could help to explain its apparent change in focus.
“With the new chair there are also many new members,” says Henwood. “The remit of the committee is a wide one, and I know from my work with the committee that there are many competing pressures. However, its relative neglect of social care over the past couple of years is striking, particularly at a time when there are major issues in social care which would benefit from the attentions of the committee, not least questions of restrictive eligibility criteria in many local authorities and the emerging new agenda on personalisation.”
Committee member Taylor believes renaming the committee could help raise the profile of social care issues, particularly given the emergence of the Care Quality Commission and the changes to social care regulation. “As it is called the health select committee at present, it is perhaps not surprising that health comes out better than social care,” he admits.
Fellow member Dowd argues that it is more about the issues covered than the name. He admits that, under Hinchliffe, the committee had more of a social care agenda. However, he insists the committee simply chooses issues that are relevant at the time – although he also admits that lobby groups can have much sway. “There is a danger of social care slipping in this area because the social care lobby does not seem to be as strong as the mainstream health sector.”
Issues to be considered
Committee chair Barron seems unconcerned that no social care issues have yet been covered by the committee under his tutelage. “We are influenced by what is happening out there,” he says. He adds that, in fact, the committee’s inquiry into health inequalities announced at the end of last year will also look at social care issues as part of its scope.
However, there is no shortage of other social care issues that the committee could look into. These include the future of social care in the context of the upcoming adult green paper the personalisation agenda and what it means for social care the impact of the separation of adults’ and children’s services the impact of eligibility criteria on access to services and the quality of care offered to people with learning disabilities.
Mike Wardle, chief executive of the General Social Care Commission, has planned a meeting with Barron to discuss and flag up key issues in social care and, in particular, the social care workforce, personalisation and social care research. He is also keen for the health select committee to hold more informal evidence sessions on social care issues, which he says would help to steer the sector’s agenda.
“The important thing is to ensure that the committee has as much evidence on social care issues in as much detail as we can muster,” he says.
Wardle says that the children, schools and families select committee and the joint committee on human rights have done a good job in picking up parts of the social care agenda in recent years: the former investigated children’s trusts and children’s services last year, for example, while the latter has looked at the human rights of older people in the NHS and of those of people with learning disabilities.
But, as Wardle puts it, this is no substitute for the health select committee “doing its job and investigating social care issues”.
More on the health select committee’s work
This article appeared in the 24 January issue under the headline “Left on the shelf”