At last, a government offer to stop pensioners having to sell their homes to pay for care.
For many, today’s announcement is an historic moment. Despite bitter political wrangling (remember 2010’s death tax debate?), we have witnessed the emergence of a consensus, not only among the assortment of organisations which make up the care ‘sector’, but also among politicians of all different stripes and hues.
As a result, any one individual’s care costs will be capped at £75,000 and, simultaneously, the threshold under which capital may be considered exempt is to be raised by £100,000. Who could not be overjoyed at such an outcome?
But critics are already pouncing on the fact that a £75,000 cap may be too high to help those elderly facing ‘catastrophic’ care costs (Dilnot initially proposed £35,000). Nevertheless, those concerns must not distract us from the significance of what is being proposed here: fundamentally, the transformation of a social care system means-tested since 1948 into one which is universal. A safety-net for the poorest pensioners is being recast as a universal entitlement programme for the wealthiest.
In the light of this, there are two pressing questions.
The first is this. Propping up the housing assets of those fortunate enough to have accumulated them – is that really the policy solution most sensitive to the reality of the ageing society? Increased life expectancy is certainly an achievement of civilization to be celebrated.
But have we really come to terms with it? On top of the dramatic decline in dependency ratios (the number of people of working-age in relation to retirees), there has been the nation’s immense and now triply-locked pension liabilities, Gordon’s gimmicks – £4 billion of free TV licenses, winter fuel payment and free bus transport – and NHS spend on older people. On top of all that we want now to throw in a state-funded entitlement to care for people of whatever means? Looking out on the 21st century do we really think this radical extension of the welfare state is viable?
Secondly, and more pressingly, can the Government rest content to preside over a means-tested care system widely acknowledged to be broken whilst focusing attention, energy and funding on bringing in a new group entirely?
Imagine a hotel owner whose ground-floor rooms are all dangerously wired. And say that owner decided to devote all his time and effort and money to securing planning permission for a loft conversion to allow for a greater overall number of guests without first fixing the electrics on the ground floor. Would we not consider his priorities out-of-kilter?
The litany of failures, host of headlines and succession of care-in-crisis stories all bear witness to the fact that the ground floor needs rewiring first.
During the course of the Centre for Social Justice’s two-year review of pensioner poverty we came across some pretty harrowing evidence of the chronic failure of social care in this country.
We saw care home residents parked in corridors during maintenance works simply because the home was understaffed.
We listened to local authorities admit they were no longer in a position to pay care providers enough for them in turn to pay their staff a fair wage.
We visited older people hanging on at home – supposedly ‘independent in the community’ – subject to the ignominy of fifteen-minute ‘flying visits’ by domiciliary care workers not being reimbursed for their travel time.
Clearly, there is no excuse for abuse. But there are explanations for the creeping neglect we see from all sides. And there is no way round the fact that many of the most deep-seated problems trace back to – at least in this area of council expenditure – spending being simply out-of-sync with demand.
Having seen all this, it is very difficult in our era of austerity to avoid the conclusion that any forthcoming investment should go to those who need it the most.