It’s become a familiar scene. Minister makes “major” announcement of new funding for social care in the realm of many millions. Sector responds that what is needed is in the realm of many billions. Government cites arcane local government finance mechanisms as a quite brilliant distraction from a proper solution because no-one really understands them. The media pays the issue a cursory glance until a shiny new Westminster intrigue captures their attention and they move on. The general public remain confused as to why these “millions” and a small increment on their council tax bills aren’t cutting the mustard. And the system limps on.
Maybe I have just been around for too long. But we have been here before. A Better Care Fund. A Social Care Precept. An Extra £2bn Over Three Years Subsequently Linked to NHS England Performance Targets. A botched General Election pledge. A Green Paper. A delay to the Green Paper. Another Announcement Promising the Green Paper Really Will Be Along Very Soon, Honest.
And now this. New Secretary of State Matt Hancock announces £240 million emergency funding for social care. £240 million whole British pounds! That’s an actual £1.6 million for every social care authority in England! That’s nothing less than 3.4 per cent of the £7 billion that has been cut from the system since 2010! And that’s roughly the same amount the NHS gets through in 16 hours!
Or maybe it’s because I had a bad night’s sleep after I listened to Liz Truss on Newsnight claiming “we are not making cuts to local authorities, we are giving them more revenue raising power”. Having cut grant by 50 per cent that is one serious rounding error from the Chief Secretary to HM Treasury. And by “more revenue raising power”, I believe she may be referring to the two per cent social care precept councils have been allowed to add to council tax bills. How can I put this gently? A regressive tax based on property values calculated in the last century is no fix to the ballooning social care pressures caused by massive demographic changes in this century. It is entirely irrelevant and detached from the reality of demand pressures, and to pretend this is a substitute for genuine resourcing of local services is fake news.
But back to the point at hand: this £240 million emergency fund. How inadequate is this? Let me count the ways. Firstly, a one-off micro-cash injection to get the system through the winter is no proxy for a long-term sustainable funding settlement. As things stand, the social care crisis is with us for life, not just for Christmas.
Secondly, it represents the weak statecraft of a Government that would rather run from crisis to crisis than implement the necessary reforms to put the system on a, dare I say, strong and stable footing. The health and social care system needs long-term workforce and provision planning to ensure community-based care can be put in place to ease pressure on hospitals.
Thirdly, the situation is too serious to warrant a mere gimmick from a new secretary of state as he addresses the party faithful. This is about real human beings – their lives, their dignity and the peace of mind of their families. The failure to deal with the social care crisis speaks to a wider failing of our national system of governance as a whole to effectively respond to the twenty-first century challenges it is confronted with. Instead it papers over inconvenient facts, distracts attention and leaves under-resourced staff in communities to muddle through as best they can.
That is why NLGN is now calling on the Chancellor to use the upcoming Budget to address the social care crisis once and for all. The Prime Minister already announced a £20.5bn “birthday present” to the NHS in the summer. That money should be shared with local government so that they can properly resource social care services. This would shift the balance from one off injections into the crisis end of the system, to instead invest properly in community-based care that can stop crises happening in the first place. This would be both better for people, and better for hospitals as it will ease the pressure on A&E admissions and beds.
But this is more than a moral or a pragmatic proposal: it makes sound financial sense too, a fact which ought to appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is economically illiterate to continue chucking money at the symptoms of a problem rather than address the root cause once and for all. I believe the technical term is “invest to save”.
We wait in hope of one day witnessing a Government announcement that shows a genuine grip of the social care crisis and an honest attempt to implement a lasting funding settlement. Will Budget Day on 29th October be that day?