Social care is playing second fiddle to health, education and other issues in the campaign for the forthcoming Scottish and Welsh elections. But the power of the grey vote in both countries may give the sector some influence, particularly in Wales. Helen McCormack reports
With two weeks to go before polling day for the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, the requisite door knocking, pavement pounding and baby kissing is under way.
Since last week, all the main political parties had published their manifestos for the third elections of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. Unsurprisingly education, health and the environment took their usual prominent positions.
Social care, meanwhile, has received far less attention than it both deserves and demands according to charities for older people, children and disabled people, and professional bodies such as the Social Care Association.
However, the power of the pensioner vote in both countries may increase the sector’s influence, particularly in Wales.
Councils have been struggling to pay for the Labour-led executive’s flagship policy, introduced in 2002, that gives free personal care to older people.
And last autumn, the Scottish parliament’s health committee said councils faced a £79m funding gap for free personal care in 2006-7 and some were operating long waiting lists for either assessments or the delivery of services.
But Help the Aged Scotland says this issue is being overshadowed among pensioners by calls to scrap council tax and replace it with a local income tax. The charity backs the new tax, proposed by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party, which is on course to unseat Labour as the largest party in the new parliament, according to the latest polls.
Help the Aged Scotland spokesperson Lindsay Scott said the main parties ignore the power of the grey vote at their peril. He points to the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, which sent one MSP to Holyrood in the 2003 elections but is putting up 50 candidates this time, and could tap into the anger of the country’s pensioners.
“Older people have had enough, and are saying they are no longer simply prepared to vote along traditional [Labour] lines,” Scott says.
Disability charity Leonard Cheshire Scotland is also backing the scrapping of council tax, which it says unfairly penalises disabled people. But for its parliamentary and policy officer, Ryan McQuigg, the key issue is a need to make accessible housing universal in Scotland.
The Lib Dems are also backing the call for legislation to create a disability hate crime similar to that already on the statute books in England and Wales. McQuigg says the situation renders Scotland’s disabled “second-class citizens” compared with counterparts south of the border.
Labour has put education at the centre of its campaign, promising an education bill within 100 days of the election to make leaving school before 18 conditional on being in other forms of education or training. But there is one key children’s issue which charities complain has received too little attention from the parties: poverty.
UK government figures released last month showed the first rise in child poverty in six years. John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, says that although there has not been a rise in numbers in Scotland, progress on meeting the 2020 target for eradicating child poverty was “stalling” and that was “very disappointing”. Labour’s commitment to meeting the target remains, but Dickie says all parties should make the same pledge and that progress needs to happen “much faster”.
Tom Roberts, head of policy at Children 1st, one of Scotland’s biggest children’s charities, says: “The issues dominating the campaigns and grabbing the headlines so far have been health and education.”
The charity wants the new executive to roll out across Scotland a scheme to ensure a child’s extended family has a say in their future before care orders are made. It runs such a scheme in 15 councils at the moment.
In Wales, the NSPCC is sounding a more positive note for children. Simon Jones, policy adviser for Wales, says he has been encouraged by the degree to which children’s issues are being covered by all the main parties, while child poverty figures for the country fell for Wales last year.
But he says big problems – not least poverty – remain. For instance, he expects to see the newly-elected government address the lack of funding for child and adolescent mental health services and examine the increase in the number of children being taken into care “if not on the first day, then in the first weeks” of taking office.
There is more anger, however, over home care. Labour made a pledge to introduce free home care for disabled people in its 2003 manifesto and subsequently dropped it last year. Health minister Brian Gibbons admitted it could not afford the scheme, pointing to problems with the introduction of free personal care in Scotland.
But the Coalition Against Charging Cymru, which includes charities Leonard Cheshire, Help the Aged in Wales and the Alzheimer’s Society in Wales, continue to push for its introduction.
Ian Thomas, director of the Alzheimer’s Society in Wales, says: “They went back on their commitment and it is absent from the manifesto this time around.” He adds that social care in general needs to be made “much more of a priority”.
With over-65s making up one-fifth of the Welsh population and with 57 per cent of over-65s voting in the last elections, the influence of issues such as free home care could be telling.
Plaid Cymru, which is committed to free personal care as an aim and says it would immediately cap council charges for home care, is expected to make gains and some are predicting a hung parliament.
Thomas says both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Party have paid more attention to social care compared with previous manifestos. “They are beginning to listen and it is going up the agenda – not fast enough – but it is going up,” he adds.
The political parties are in some ways out of step with the public on their approach to care of the vulnerable says Nick Johnson, chief executive of the Social Care Association.
He says the resource that older people, many of whom will still be in work, represent is often ignored and argues that a shift in the perception of social care from being just a spending burden to being a potential income generator as well is needed.
He adds: “If you talk to the population they are very concerned that children and older people who might need help are looked after – it is known and they are willing for it to be paid for.
“The perception of older people being a burden, or of difficult children, is a perception promoted by the mainstream media and possibly by the government but it is not a view held by massive parts of the population.” cc
Is the number up for traditional voting patterns with older people becoming more outspoken about what they want?
Scottish parliament (back to Scotland)
Formed in 1999, with primary legislative power over much domestic policy, including social care, health and education. It is formed of 129 members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs). In the 2003 election, Labour won 50 seats, the SNP 27, the Conservatives 18, the Liberal Democrats 17, the Scottish Green Party seven, the Scottish Socialist Party six and others four. The executive has been run by a Labour/Lib Dem coalition.
Welsh assembly (back to Wales)
Formed in 1999, the assembly has powers over many of the same areas as the Scottish parliament but is bound by the primary legislation set by the UK parliament, which it can adapt through secondary legislation. In the last election, Labour won 30 seats, Plaid Cymru 12, the Conservatives 11, the Liberal Democrats six and one independent. Labour is the ruling party.
Social Care Association
Help the Aged Scotland
Child Poverty Action Group Scotland
Alzheimer’s Society in Wales
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