Social care secretary back in post as government mulls delay to cap on care costs

Steve Barclay returns to cabinet role he held briefly over summer as sector warns financial situation is forcing authorities to consider cutting care packages

Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay (credit: HM Government)

By Mithran Samuel and Anastasia Koutsounia (story updated)

Adult social care has a new cabinet minister as the government mulls delaying its proposed funding reforms, including the cap on care costs.

Steve Barclay has returned to the post of health and social care secretary, which he held for just two months over the summer, following Thérèse Coffey’s even shorter stint in the role.

Also returning to the department, as the minister directly responsible for adult social care, is Helen Whately, who was previously care minister from 2020-21.

While Barclay will be focused on the significant pressures on health and social care as winter approaches – evidenced by mounting vacancies, ambulance waiting times and numbers of delayed discharges from hospital – his appointment comes with the government mulling a one-year delay to its adult social care charging reforms.

Delay to cap on care costs being considered

Currently due for implementation in October 2023, these would introduce an £86,000 cap on personal care costs and a more generous means-test, enabling people with chargeable assets of up to £100,000 to have council-funded care.

However, the Times reported earlier this month that ministers were considering a one-year delay to the changes as part of moves to shore up the public finances, which will be set out in next month’s autumn statement. The funding reforms are due to cost £771m in 2023-24.

A delay is strongly supported by council leaders, who believe the reforms will be undeliverable against the current timetable because of current demand and financial pressures and the need to recruit significantly more social workers.

However, other sector leaders fear that a delay could lead to the reforms being kicked into the long grass or abandoned altogether. Similar reforms were due to be implemented in 2016 before being first delayed – to 2020 – and then abandoned altogether.

Further cuts ‘would be worse than austerity’

The forthcoming autumn statement has also sparked fears that councils will face another round of cuts, similar to, or potentially worse than, those experienced from 2010 onwards, to help the government fill an estimated black hole of £30bn-£4obn.

In a report this week, the County Councils Network (CCN) said inflation-linked pressures had left county authorities with £591m of unfunded pressures in 2022-23 and a funding gap of £821m (or 3.7% of their budgets) in 2023-24. Its analysis found that adult social care accounted for about one-fifth of additional cost pressures in both years, with children’s services responsible for a further 20%.

It said that the situation – combined with the challenges of delivering on the charging reforms to the current timetable – meant county authorities would “potentially have no choice but to further reduce care packages and eligibility for services”.

CCN chairman Tim Oliver, the leader of Surrey council, said further central government cuts to councils “would be worse than the period of austerity and devastating for local services”.

He added: “We will be left with unpalatable decisions, with many likely to have to resort to a very basic ‘core offer’ level of services despite this ultimately being a false economy and adversely hitting the most vulnerable in our society.”

While he said the government faced “some very difficult decisions”, councils needed “more help, not less”, with there “no longer [being] any easy ‘efficiency savings’ or low hanging fruit to cut”.

Helen Whately returns as care minister

Whately’s appointment comes with the previous Liz Truss premiership not having appointed a minister with direct responsibility for adult social care.

Responsibilities were reportedly picked up by junior minister Neil O’Brien on an informal basis.

Before she rejoined the department, Whately questioned both Truss and chancellor Jeremy Hunt on whether they remained committed to reforming adult social care.

While Truss said her government was so committed, Hunt – who was previously health and social care secretary – did not.

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