What will the Tories do if they win the next election?

The prospect of a Conservative government need not mean doom and gloom for social workers, writes Andrew Mickel

After 13 years of New Labour, all opinion polls suggest that, in less than a year, the Conservatives will form the next government.

But despite the valiant efforts of shadow children’s secretary Tim Loughton to repair the party’s broken relationship with social workers, there is still deep suspicion about what the party will do when in office.

However, there is already a mix of rhetoric and intended policies which give clear pointers as to what the social care sector can expect.

The biggest fear is the most basic: that the party won’t provide enough cash to even run the current level of services.

Jenny* runs a major project working with disabled children and she fears that many schemes she has been able to fund with new money under the Labour administration could dry up under a Conservative one.

“Every Child Matters and Every Disabled Child Matters has come under a Labour government,” she says. “Most of our funding comes from social services, but there has just been more money around to start more projects – plus the Children’s Fund has been good for early intervention and prevention.”

Because of the recession, it is clear that there will be a major squeeze on public finances regardless of who forms the next government. That reality came a step closer with shadow chancellor George Osborne’s statement in June that his party would cut public spending.

But there is a difference between the parties, claims shadow health minister Stephen O’Brien: “George Osborne said that public spending would be cut, not public services.

To believe the two are the same is to buy into Labour’s flawed reasoning. Within that envelope, we have committed to real terms increases in NHS spending – something the government refuses to match.

This would have positive ramifications for adult social care as we seek to break down the boundaries between the two through pooled budgets and joint commissioning, for example.”

Recession-proof services

And it’s not just adult social care that will be protected, says Jasmine Ali, head of the children’s services network at the Local Government Information Unit. “Lord Laming has effectively made children’s services recession proof,” she says.

“Plus, you have got statutory responsibilities over and above a change of councils. That restricts the amount of change you can make in the short term.”

There is one difference that puts clear blue water between the parties’ policies on funding: the Conservatives’ plan to end the ringfencing of funds from central government to local authorities. A council won’t suddenly be able to shirk its statutory obligations, but it does give them more leeway to, for example, prioritise education instead.

Loughton says: “We’re not in favour of ringfencing in principle. We are much more keen to hand powers back to local authorities to make the decision on their own criteria. The thing that always strikes me talking about local government is that about 80% of their budgets is entirely fixed by statutory requirements, giving them very little leeway as to what they prioritise locally to benefit people.

“This is a classic example of where prescriptive legislation from the centre has placed such a huge burden on social workers at the front end. We have to unravel some of that excessive legislation that has turned their job into a box-ticking job where it’s more important to comply with manuals than actually be able to intervene appropriately.”

Fine intentions

They are fine intentions but the shift of control over how cash is spent from a Conservative government to what are largely Conservative town halls raises the question of whether the party understands the significance of social work.

June’s local election results, which saw seven councils change hands to the Conservatives, offers some clues. When asked for a statement of policy intent for children’s services, the new Conservative-run Nottinghamshire Council spoke exclusively about what education needed, failing to mention social work once.

The same is true of the election manifestoes for the new Conservative councils of Devon and Somerset. And Conservatives in Somerset intend to “[work] with the NHS to improve the conditions and care for adults and young people in social care”, without mentioning adults’ services.

Abolishing ringfencing also means that councils of all political hues can make short-term savings that could hit the social care sector hard. Ali says: “The thing about Every Child Matters is that it is largely about preventive services. But in an economic recession the first things to go are those services – that’s not just for Conservative councils but across the board. You have to hope that the councillors can recognise that those services do have an effect in the long run.”


Still, localism is the buzzword that is shaping other Tory policies. Loughton would like to seethe funds that the Children’s Workforce Development Council and Skills for Care have to help recruit social workers handed to local authorities.

He also favours overhauling the Integrated Children’s System to give local authorities the right to build systems of their own choosing rather than through the government’s template, thus allowing them to build locally sensitive systems that only require social workers to put in pertinent details.

And the Conservatives have already announcedthat they would axe the new National Safeguarding Board, which Loughton daubs as not the “panacea that Herbert Laming and the government seem to think it will be”.

But there are a few opportunities still left for Labour to set the agenda. One is this summer’s adult social care green paper, although O’Brien is expecting it will still be in the Conservatives’ in-tray should they take office next year:

“It is disappointing that at no point has the government sought to build a political consensus on this issue; they cannot get beyond petty politics. I would be surprised if the government does choose a model – that is likely to be left until next year’s white paper,” he says.

Labour’s other opportunity would be to enact the findings of the Social Work Task Force, which is due to report in the autumn. However, Loughton sceptically claims that “they could have written their interim report by referring to the [Conservative] Commission on Social Workers report of October 2007 [No More Blame Game]”.

It should be seen as encouraging for the sector that, rather than making up policy on the hoof, the party has stuck with the considered findings of that document.

It has been built on further since then, including the party’s cross-departmental review of youth justice which is expected later this year. Loughton says it will pose a chance to escape from departmental “silo spending” to tackle a difficult topic.

This isn’t the only example of how departments will be made to work together – Loughton also has “severe doubts” over whether Ofsted can inspect children’s social care and advocates a more multi-agency approach to training and inspection.

O’Brien, meanwhile, says that individual budgets should be created in health and pooled together with those in social care. He also advocates building societal costs into the National Institute for Clinical Excellence appraisal model of medical treatments on the NHS, bringing health and social care closer together.

Safeguarding funding

However, the significance of these policies pale in comparison next to the central question of resourcing, and whether both the new Treasury team and the newly empowered town halls can be convinced of the need to safeguard the funding of the social care sector.

And even with a coherent set of policies and a strong advocate for social work in Loughton, Jenny remains cautious as to what the wider party will deliver. “Given that David Cameron had a disabled son, he might be more sensitive [as to what the sector needs]. My expectation would be that they would honour the Labour government’s commitment to Every Disabled Child Matters.

“But I’ve seen a few Conservative governments in my time and the Tory frontbench has not convinced me that they have changed much since Thatcher’s days,” she says.

* Name has been changed


Tory policy so far

Cut public spending (15 June 2009).

Axe the National Safeguarding Board (12 May 2009).

● The Conservatives won’t reveal their policy on long-term funding on adult social care until the government’s green paper is published (10 March 2009.)

● Ring-fencing of central government funding for councils would be abolished (17 February 2009).

● In the party’s submission to Lord Laming – there were calls for serious case reviews to be published in full anonymously; Contactpoint to be abolished; ICS to be overhauled; a chief social worker to be appointed; and for a changed career structure to allow experienced staff to stay on the frontline (February 2009).

This article is published in the 2 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Got the election blues?

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