(Picture: public sector staff protesting against cuts march though a damp Birmingham at the start of the Conservative Party conference. Picture by Jeremy Dunning)
Government hopes local communities will step up and fill service gaps
The row over the government’s decision to end child benefits for higher rate tax payers provides a taste of the storm to come once major spending cuts are announced on 20 October.
Taking the axe to universal child benefits probably looked like astute politics to coalition advisers at the time; a perfect example of “fair cuts” and proof positive of David Cameron’s assurance that all sectors of society will have to share the pain in the interests of national economic recovery.
However, the Conservative Party conference unwittingly unleashed a tsunami of criticism as back-bench MPs and usually pro-Tory commentators and press said it was unfair that stay-at-home mothers would be disproportionately hit.
This was but a whisper compared to the tumultuous noises of dissent that will greet chancellor George Osborne on October 20 when he unveils the comprehensive spending review.
The start of the conference was overshadowed by a march through Birmingham by disabled groups and public sector workers, angry about the scale of the impending cuts and reforms to welfare payments.
Such scenes are likely to become more familiar as the unions carry out even more protests over the coalition government’s public sector reforms and budget cuts, all of which will impact upon social care and social workers.
Although Cameron has stressed that he will protect the most vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, doubts remain that hard-pressed local authorities will be able to adequately fulfil their statutory social care duties without further tightening of eligibility criteria.
Pressure is being put on councils to share more management posts. Communities and local government minister Grant Shapps warned a group of councillors: “Don’t go for the soft option. Don’t withdraw money from the groups meant to protect the vulnerable. Try to make those the last place you will make cuts.”
The public sector reforms involve shrinking the role of the state and asking local communities to take more responsibility for themselves – the Big Society.
Spirit of activism
During his keynote speech Cameron stressed this was “not a cover for spending cuts” and called for a “spirit of activism” to meet modern challenges.
Linked to this is the enthusiasm the leadership is showing for groups of public sector workers to free themselves from local authority control and to set up their own services, which ministers believe will be more efficient and responsive to need.
However, doubts remain at the ability or desire of both workers and local communities to fill the gap as the state retreats.
This same localism strain can also be seen in plans for elected city mayors to pool budgets to bring together services, including commissioning of support for problem families.
The relationship between health and social care is also becoming central in Tory thinking with the key word being integration.
Health secretary Andrew Lansley has been struggling to win over GPs for health reforms, which many experts argue will damage closer joint working.
However, Lansley crucially gave integration his backing and health minister Earl Howe has also said that health money will be used to help “bail out” social care when local authority budgets come under pressure.
The £70m reablement fund that Lansley announced at conference may not in reality be a huge amount but it sets out a signal to the NHS that it has got to provide more backing to social care during this time of austerity.
Lansley said the government was thinking about health and social care integration, “so that we do not leave social care damaged as a consequence of necessary reductions in public expenditure and in ways that are not only going to hurt care users but are also going to impact harshly on the health service as a consequence of that”.
Within welfare reform, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has won his battle with the Treasury for a universal credit under which all benefits will be rolled into one. The idea is to stop people being trapped on welfare benefits because work does not pay.
Although there has been cautious support for such a reform, whether he will manage to reduce the numbers on welfare is open to doubt, given the history of past welfare reform initiatives.
Underpinning all these reforms is the comprehensive spending review which will dictate the level of available resources. What is clear after the child benefits row is that jittery MPs will be watching their postbags over the winter as the cuts start to bite.
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