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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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