By Margaret Willcox, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services
The profile of social care has increased rapidly over the past year, attracting widespread media coverage of the worries and fears of the entire sector. This was reflected in the number of journalists – both national and trade press – who attended the ADASS spring seminar this month. They joined around 300 delegates to hear key speakers talk about the pressing issues and challenges facing adult social care – and some possible solutions – as well as other concerns and initiatives discussed during a workshop programme.
There is no let-up. The spotlight on social care now continues in the run-up to the general election. The main political parties have published their manifestos, which pledge to tackle the crisis in the sector in different ways. It’s easy to focus on funding figures and strategies promised, but what matters most are outcomes for elderly and disabled people and their families to help them live dignified, fulfilling and independent lives.
Indeed, the humanity of social care was raised by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, at our Spring Seminar. In a moving keynote speech, he articulated well some of the difficult issues social workers face while doing all they can to safeguard the rights of older people and keep couples together if that’s what they want.
The importance of keeping families united through increased collaboration between adult and children’s services was also highlighted at the seminar. Both these services have a common history. We need strong joint working across them, with preventative work in families to improve relationships across generations and better manage future care demands.
‘Strong sector, strong economy’
There are always complex issues to consider and the importance of social workers and social care needs to be more widely recognised. The workforce is the care sector’s greatest asset and the recruitment, retention and training of staff are key to ensuring good quality services. This has never been more urgent as for the first time this year there are more people with care and support needs than carers. Improving the workforce is a worthwhile goal because social care contributes as much as £43 billion to the national economy and supports 1.5 million full-time equivalent jobs. Strong social care and a strong economy go hand in hand.
The next government needs to treat social care as a national priority, not least to address immediate sector pressures, but also to account for future needs.
The number of people with learning disabilities needing social care services is rising and more of us are experiencing chronic illness. Dementia and frailty in later life is also soaring, which affects the ability to make decisions about the way we live our lives.
This is why one of my priorities for the year ahead is mental health. Despite great progress and more understanding, people with long-term mental illness still die far earlier than the average adult in this country and the rate of suicide remains a serious concern.
I will be working with colleagues in the mental health network, particularly to promote the role of the Approved Mental Health Professional.
A secure job helps to improve mental health, which is why helping disabled people into work is another of my personal priorities. Although the number of disabled people in employment is rising, they are more than twice as likely to fall out of work than non-disabled people. We will be working with partners to raise the profile of employment and develop successful models to give people the opportunities they need.
Of course, urgent and sufficient funding is key to the success of these goals. The historic underfunding of social care is significantly threatening its stability. People are living longer and with increasingly complex needs – the pressures on the social care system are rising.
The £2bn announced in the spring budget is welcome, but this is only a short-term measure, and the gap in funding by the end of the decade is estimated to be about £2.5 billion. It is crucial that we keep up the momentum on establishing a long-term, sustainable solution to funding adult social care to ensure thousands of elderly and disabled people and their families get the personal and dignified care they need and deserve, both now and in years to come.
It has been reassuring to see social care given prominence in the manifestos of political parties. However, any future charging arrangements for domiciliary care must be fair and must guard against unintended consequences of encouraging people to delay gaining the help and support they need, and prevent future high cost hospital and care home admissions. We would welcome understanding how the sustainability of the social care system is assured overall.
Social care has never been more important or urgent to address than this year. One national journalist at the Spring Seminar said the significance of social care to its audience was “absolutely massive”, but that it needs to continue to have a loud and persistent voice.
We owe it to our workforce and elderly and disabled people and their families, to keep telling it like it is to ensure whoever runs this country puts social care at the top of their to-do list.