(pic: Chris Sharp)
Labour’s Emily Thornberry, shadow care services minister for the past two months, tells Jeremy Dunning why the coalition has so far proved to be more radical than anyone had suspected – but ‘not in a good way’
She may have only been in the job for less than two months, but Labour’s shadow care services minister Emily Thornberry is getting up to speed with her brief.
In her first interview as Paul Burstow’s shadow, Thornberry says she has already spoken to sector leaders and is intending to arrange for a day out with social workers to enable her to understand the stresses and strains of being on the frontline.
At the forefront of her mind is the issue of how adult social care will deal with the 28% cuts to government funding for English councils from 2011-15, which will be partially offset by an extra £1bn a year in funding from the NHS for adult care.
She describes the government’s spending plans as “terrifying and profoundly reckless”, adding, “This is a very radical government and we are only just starting to understand how radical they are and not in a good way.”
Burstow has steadfastly maintained that the settlement will enable councils to maintain adult care at existing levels, provided they make efficiency savings of 3% a year on their budgets and raise sufficient funds from council tax.
However, the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services have warned that a funding gap of up to £4bn a year could emerge by 2015 in the amount councils need to maintain services.
Unsurprisingly for an opposition politician, Thornberry is coming down on the local government side of the argument, and derides the government’s position.
“What planet are they on?” she asks, “How on earth do you expect local authorities to sustain huge cuts in this way and for there not to be cuts in social care? We all hope that there won’t be, but hoping’s not enough. It’s as if they keep on saying it long enough it will come true.”
Since taking up her brief, she has raised the funding issue with the Department of Health and Department of Communities and Local Government in a series of parliamentary questions. One particular concern she has had is that poorer areas will be hit hardest by the government’s spending plans.
“Poorer areas will have a larger proportion of their budget come straight from government so therefore a 28% cut in that grant affects poorer areas much more. They are going to be the areas that will have higher proportion of people with a disability.”
Before being elected as MP for Islington South and Finsbury in 2005, Thornberry worked as a human rights lawyer in Tooks Chambers, alongside leading QC Michael Mansfield, who represented the Birmingham Six and affected families in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.
She also took part in campaigns against racism and in favour of more family-friendly employment policies for women.
She believes this background is useful for her current role, helping her to take in large amounts of information and identify the key points quickly, as well as enabling her to act as an advocate for people with few savings, little family support and increasingly severe needs.
Now she commonly pulls in 14-hour days as a shadow minister while taking care of three children, one of whom has Thornberry’s campaigning zeal and took part last month’s infamous protest against higher tuition fees in London.
Besides funding, she is also worried about the government’s plans to reform the assessment and inspection of adult social care, which involve scrapping the annual performance assessment of councils by the Care Quality Commission.
She fears that this will reduce the ability of the CQC to monitor services at a time of huge stress on the social care system, leading to services worsening for vulnerable people.
She says Labour will not take an oppositional approach to the recommendations of the Commission on the Funding of Care and Support on the future funding of long-term care, due next July. Provided they are sustainable, affordable and fair, “it will be up to us to support it because we have to do this in a cross-party way”.
She contrasts this with the approach taken by the Conservative Party before the last election, when Tory accusations that Labour was planning to introduce a £20,000 levy on estates – or “death tax” – to fund care scuppered cross-party talks to thrash out the reform of care funding.
“We are in opposition and it’s now up to the government to come forward with some proposals about what they would do in social care because they didn’t like ours,” Thornberry adds. “Everyone agrees that the status quo just won’t do and I’m beginning to get my head just how profound the problem is and how complex it is.”
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