Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has issued a call to all MPs and peers to help forge a cross-party consensus on reforming social care funding.
However, in his letter to parliamentarians, Hancock made clear that the government’s focus for the reform would be safeguarding people from ‘catastrophic costs’ or being forced to sell their home to pay for care – not addressing the level of funding for the current social care system, which is widely believed to be deeply inadequate.
In doing so, he suggested the focus of the reform effort would be on people who acquire care needs later in life having built up savings during their working lives, rather than those with either lifelong impairments or who become disabled at a younger age, which is associated with having lower lifelong incomes.
Hancock’s letter upholds a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to initiate cross-party talks on reforming adult social care within 100 days of taking office following the 12 December 2019 election, a period that comes to an end on 22 March. However, at this point, Hancock and minister for social care Helen Whateley are simply inviting ideas on reform from MPs and peers, with structured talks on defined options not due to start until May.
Tackling catastrophic costs
The demand for social care funding reform has traditionally been seen as being about two distinct issues: addressing the perceived chronic underfunding of the existing means-tested system of care, which is believed to be leading to substantial unmet need; and extending public funding to people whose wealth means that they do not qualify for state support and who could face substantial costs for funding their care.
In his letter, Hancock made clear his focus was on the latter, particularly on preventing people from having to sell their homes to pay for care, and implied there would be less focus on people who had not been able to build up such savings who would already qualify for means-tested support from local authorities.
“It is right that people and families take responsibility for planning for their future, and make some contribution to the costs of care. But we need to get that balance right. Too many people are now hit by unpredictably large costs that are hard to plan for; and left with little wealth despite a lifetime of hard work and saving.”
“As we set out in our manifesto, we will seek to build cross-party consensus so that the reforms we progress will last long into the future, nobody is forced to sell their home to pay for care, and everybody accessing care has safety and security,” Hancock added.
£4bn funding gap by 2025
Hancock’s focus comes despite widespread – and longstanding – calls for the government to address the underfunding of the current social care system, which are now being focused on next week’s Budget and the subsequent spending review – which will set government funding plans for the next few years.
In its Budget submission, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that councils would need an extra £3.9bn a year by 2024-25 to meet the additional costs adult social care would face by then as a result of inflationary and demographic pressures.
While it welcomed Hancock’s opening of cross-party discussions, the LGA pointed to its report this week, The lives we want to lead, as setting out the issues that they must cover, encompassing addressing short- and medium-term funding pressures, tackling unmet need and investing in prevention and wellbeing services in line with the aspirations of the Care Act 2014.
“The government now has an opportunity to take these forward in the forthcoming talks and we at the LGA are happy to play our part in this,” said the chair of the association’s community wellbeing board, Ian Hudspeth.
“Adult social care services face a funding gap of almost £4bn by 2025 just to cover basic inflationary and demographic pressures. The Budget next week and spending review later this year are also important opportunities to address the crucial issue of funding, as part of a sustainable, long-term solution for adult social care.”
‘No help to a system in crisis’
Hancock said he wanted to hear parliamentarians’ views, proposed solutions and concerns about reforming care funding, but his offer was criticised by Labour becuase of the lack of concrete reform proposals to discuss.
Shadow social care and mental health minister Barbara Keeley said: “As we have repeatedly said, cross-party talks can only be effective when the government comes forward with its proposals for reform. It is clear that it does not have a plan to fix the crisis in social care.
“Labour has offered to engage in meaningful cross-party talks and we would be happy to do so, but the process outlined by Matt Hancock is another consultation that provides no help to a system in crisis.”
Her view was echoed by Age UK, whose charity director Caroline Abrahams said it was disappointing that the government appeared to have no proposals for reform at this stage.
“A cross-party process would surely have a greater chance of success if ministers were setting out some kind of basis for discussion, rather than leaving it to everyone to pitch in from their own starting point,” she added.