Will the coalition waste this chance to reform social care?

Osborne must not be allowed to strangle Dilnot's proposals at birth.

It was as long ago as 1997 that Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference: "I don't want [our children] brought up in a country where the only way pensioners can get long-term care is by selling their home." Nearly 14 years later, however, more than 20,000 pensioners do exactly this every year.

The publication of the Dilnot Report provides the coalition with a chance to succeed where Labour failed and reach agreement on a long-term solution to the care crisis. As expected, Dilnot, the former director of the IFS, has proposed a cap of around £35,000 on care costs (the report suggests any figure between £25,000 and £50,000 would be acceptable), and a rise in the means-tested threshold from £23,250 to £100,000. Since the cap does not take into account the cost of food and accommodation, Dilnot has also called for a separate cap of between £7,000 and £10,000 on these "hotel costs".

His proposals have been erroneously portrayed by some as another "tax on the middle classes". But the reverse is true. Under Dilnot's plan, the middle classes will pay less (the average bill is currently £50,300, with one in five facing costs of £100,000), while the state pays more. A £50,000 cap would cost the government £1.3bn, while a £25,000 cap would cost £2.2bn.

It's for this reason that some are already suggesting that the government, in the form of George Osborne, will strangle the proposals "at birth". One cabinet minister tells Benedict Brogan: "It's DOA, there's no doubt about it ... At a time like this we simply can't afford it. We'll have to return to this issue at a future date." To which one can only reply: hogwash. Any new system is unlikely to come into effect until 2015, by which time, if Osborne's calculations are to believed, much of the deficit will have been eradicated. Short-term fiscal considerations must not act as a barrier to long-term reform. The Lib Dems' imaginative proposal to introduce capital gains tax on profits from first homes above £1m is just one example of how the state could raise more from the asset rich.

The coalition also has rare opportunity to forge a cross-party consensus on this issue. The last attempt to do so was, of course, destroyed by the Tories, who cynically attacked Andy Burnham's proposed compulsory levy as a "death tax". Despite the Tories' electioneering, however, Ed Miliband, has made a "genuine and open" offer to reach agreement. It is one David Cameron must take. Along with Miliband, every charity in the land is agreed that delay is no longer an option.

Asked earlier today what his response would be if the proposals were "kicked into the long grass", Dilnot rightly replied: "Astonishment". The longer ministers prevaricate, the worse the crisis will get. If the Lib Dems want a chance to prove that they can exercise real influence on government policy, here it is.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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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