Social care has been one of the issues dominating the election campaign, with the Conservatives even forced into doing an unprecedented U-turn after its manifesto pledge to introduce a ‘dementia tax’ was heavily criticised.
When Theresa May called the snap election, it seemed as if the result was a foregone conclusion. However the Tories’ proposals for a so called ‘death tax’ where people receiving home care have to pay for it after they die, as well as a means-tested winter fuel allowance, were a bold and risky move, potentially alienating some of their key voters.
Under the plans, people getting home care would pay if they have more than £100,000 in assets which would include their house. Up till now, property has not been included as an asset for people in receipt of home care. After the proposal went down like a lead balloon, Theresa May announced there would be a cap. However the cap will not be revealed until after the election.
Beth Britton, a dementia campaigner, who cared for her father who had vascular dementia, is concerned the proposed policy could lead to “many people avoiding engaging the home care services they need because they want to pass their home onto their family”.
She envisages this eventually having a negative, knock-on effect on the NHS, saying: “It will also put significantly more strain on already struggling unpaid family carers who desperately need the support of home care professionals, but don’t want to be faced with the financial consequences of that.”
Colin Angel, policy director of the UKHCA (United Kingdom Homecare Association) also expressed concern that the policy will not “provide an incentive for people who would benefit from early intervention, as they may make an active decision to protect their net assets”.
Even the right-wing think tank, the Bow Group, condemned the policy, pointing out that three-quarters of over 65s in the UK are home owners, with the average value of UK property being £280,000.
‘Biggest stealth tax in history’
Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of Bow Group called it a “tax on death and on inheritance”, warning “it will mean that in the end, the Government will have taken the lion’s share of a lifetime earnings in taxes. If enacted, it is likely to represent the biggest stealth tax in history and when people understand that they will be leaving most of their estate to the Government, rather than their families, the Conservative Party will experience a dramatic loss of support”.
However Barry Sweetbaum, founder of SweetTree Home Care Services, is in favour of the policy, claiming that the “inappropriately dubbed ‘death tax’ is no more than a mechanism to help individuals and families meet the costs of care after the death of an individual when resources are more available than requiring them to pay for care at the point of delivery”.
He added: “Creating an equal footing from a funding perspective between home care and residential care is a start however the big anomaly that needs to be addressed is that of treating dementia like the illness it is and funding it accordingly.”
Richard Humphries, senior fellow in policy at the think tank, The King’s Fund, is in agreement, saying that as well as ensuring policy coherence, “this proposal addresses the issue of intergenerational fairness – why shouldn’t relatively wealthy baby boomers draw on their property and pension wealth to fund their care rather than relying on working-age people, who have borne the brunt of austerity?”
However he also expressed concern that it may “discourage people from seeking help, placing a greater burden on unpaid carers and driving increased use of hospitals and long-term care”.
In its manifesto, Labour proposed a National Care Service and also pledged to invest £8bn into social care over five years. As well as a ban on zero hours contracts, Labour will raise the minimum wage to the level of the living wage (expected to be at least £10 per hour by 2020). Almost half the huge public investment programme will be funded by reversing Tory cuts to corporation tax paid by the biggest firms. People earning more than £80,000 a year will see their income tax rate increase from 40p to 45p in the pound.
Beth Britton backs the idea of a National Care Service “in the context of integrating health and social care and ending the huge disparity between accessing two different systems”.
However she has reservations over the detail of the funding proposals and Labour’s ability to deliver what is an ambitious plan.
Barry Sweetbaum is disappointed that “unfortunately, as is so often the case, politics is dominating the discussion at the expense of achieving any real social gain and sadly the losers will once again be the public who the politicians are paid to serve”.
He would also like to see politicians focussing on resolving the social care funding issue rather than on using the crisis to try and win votes.
Labour is playing at being ‘Robin Hood’
Mr Sweetbaum voiced concerns that Labour “is effectively using the social care system to play Robin Hood, taxing the rich and giving more to health care workers (who do deserve more), but are doing nothing to help the elderly and disabled individuals in society who the system is supposed to be here to protect”.
He said: “In my view, Labour has missed the point completely by pledging to remove zero hour contracts. These contracts bring flexibility to care workers and also to commissioners of care. If all support workers were on fixed contracts, the cost of care would increase significantly – by around 25 per cent.”
The Lib Dems are promising to spend some of the £6bn they have allocated to health and social care on looking after older people, saying it will fund this by adding an extra 1p on income tax.
Beth Britton points out that “all politicians from all parties need to understand that future-proofing health and social care is about far more than just how it is funded. Ploughing more and more money in is, in itself, not going to solve the problems. Integration and seamless working is vital, as is cutting waste”.
Mr Sweetbaum believes the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment to pour more money into our broken system is “like filling a petrol tank that has a hole in it”.
“The social care system will work a little better for a few more years but demographics, outdated policies and rising costs will very soon make it unaffordable again and not fit for purpose. Increasing income tax by one per cent and thinking that will solve the problem is naïve.
He called for politicians “to stop playing political football where social care is concerned”
This sentiment is echoed by Robert Stephenson-Padron, managing director of Penrose Care, who wants to see a cross-party commission set up to find a long-term solution. He said: “Although it is commendable each party has addressed social care in their manifestos, the care crisis is so pressing and so daunting that we must rise above party-politics and develop thoughtful and effective reforms in a cross-party fashion and then implement them in a resolute but adaptable way”.
It seems that social care although championed by the political parties this General Election is also a Pandora’s Box, as can be seen by its ability to decimate the huge lead of the Conservatives in the polls, after Theresa May’s highly criticised U-turn.
Whoever wins on 8 June, has the unenviable task of choosing whether the young pay for older people’s care or whether older people pay or whether it is down to the better off paying for the less well off. Let’s hope it is the needs of the people receiving social care that influences the new Government’s policy rather than political gain.