Tories slam government over free care legislation

Government legislation to provide free personal care at home for people with high needs will only benefit a small minority of service users and “put a spanner” in the wider process of social care reform.

That was the accuastion levelled by Conservative shadow health minister Stephen O’Brien in a parliamentary debate on the Personal Care at Home Bill yesterday.

The bill, which must now clear the House of Lords, passed its third reading unopposed but not before the Tories and Liberal Democrats had raised a several objections and pushed a number of amendments, all of which eventually failed.

O’Brien warned that the costs of the legislation – estimated by the government to be £670m a year – would “sky-rocket” to £1.2bn by the end of the decade, yet would benefit a small minority of users at the expense of the majority.

Around 270,000 people would benefit from free care at home, including about 110,000 who currently pay for services, out of an estimated 1.8m care users across England. The bill’s other measure – to provide reablement services to people entering the care system – would benefit an estimated 130,000 people a year.

Attacking the government’s costings, O’Brien said ministers had “plucked out of the air” their estimate that local authorities would have to find £250m a year in efficiency savings – alongside £420m from the Department of Health – to fund the legislation.

Council leaders believe the figure is an underestimate.

O’Brien repeated claims that the “electorally inspired” bill “went utterly against the grain of the government’s green paper on social care” and said it was “somewhat disingenuous” of care services minister Phil Hope to claim otherwise.

The green paper, published last July, ruled out funding free personal care out of general taxation on the basis that it would place too great a burden on people of working age.

O’Brien added: “[The bill] is in fact a fully taxpayer-funded option, which was previously rejected by the government in explicit terms, because the working population of this country is shrinking as a proportion of the total population.

However, Hope continued to insist that the bill was a stepping stone towards the green paper’s aim of establishing a “national care service” with a univeral entitlement to publicly-funded care for all eligible users.

He said the government had neither under-estimated the average hourly costs of care nor the number of hours accessed by people with the highest needs in costing its proposals.

Hope added the government was now consulting on three options for distributing funding to councils and said that the scheme, which is due to come into force in October 2010, would be reviewed within the first 18 to 24 months.

Hope added: “I am not prepared to stand by and see people in their own homes with the highest level of care needs having to run down their savings and drawing on the help of loved ones to pay for the support that they need.”

The bill is likely to face tougher opposition in the Lords where the government lacks an overall majority and with prominent Labour peers – including former health minister Lord Warner – voicing opposition to the plans.

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