Labour turns its fire on social care cuts

Age UK warns that spending on social care will be cut by 8.4 per cent this year.

The issue of social care is threatening to become yet another headache for the coalition. Despite a pledge by ministers to provide more funding, a survey by Age UK has found that English councils are planning to cut spending on social care for pensioners by £610m this year, or 8.4 per cent. Average net spending on those who need care is set to fall from £2,548 to £2,335. At a time when there are 800,000 older people who need care but do not receive it, a figure that is set to increase to one million by 2014, any suggestion of cuts is toxic for a government.

The care services minister, Paul Burstow, has already responded by arguing that the charity's figures "simply don't add up", claiming that Age UK has factored in only 35 per cent of a £1bn cash transfer from the NHS. He said: "Age UK's research does not give the full picture and they have seriously underestimated the amount of additional support for social care and older people in particular."

But Labour has gone on the attack this morning, warning that this is yet another area in which the coalition is cutting "too far and too fast". The shadow care services minister, Emily Thornberry, said: "Labour warned from the start that the Tories' plans to slash council budgets would mean deep cuts to care services and would see the most vulnerable in our society suffer."

Ed Miliband, who forged close links with charities whilst minister for the third sector, has recently proved adept at using third parties to advance his cause at PMQs. Age UK, which was voted charity of the year by MPs and Lords just a month ago, has provided the Labour leader with yet more evidence to buttress his argument against the cuts.

In the meantime, the debate over the long-term future of social care gathers intensity. The Dilnot Commission is set to recommend that individuals pay between £35,000 and £50,000 towards the cost of their care before the state steps in. This will allow the threshold for means-tested care to be raised from £23,250 to £100,000, ensuring that far fewer need to sell assets such as their family home. After the Tories' cynical "death tax" poster destroyed early hopes of a cross-party consensus, Miliband has made a "genuine and open" offer to try to reach agreement once the commission reports. But George Osborne's threat to "strangle the proposals at birth" and the war of words over cuts means that consensus may prove elusive again.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.