We should use Winter Fuel Payments to fund social care reform

Asking the better off to sacrifice a £300-a-year benefit, could save the same people tens of thousands of pounds in care bills.

Care is a lottery and I have published a report, Delivering Dilnot: paying for elderly care, to explain how we might eradicate this lottery. My aim with this CentreForum report is to start an adult conversation about how we pay for care reform. In brief, I am arguing that the money for Winter Fuel Payments should not just disappear into Treasury coffers, but be recycled back into the pockets of those who most need it: the poorest and frailest older people. Ultimately this is about asking the better off to sacrifice a £300-a-year benefit, so that many of the same people can save tens of thousands of pounds in the future. Not an unreasonable exchange.

To illustrate my point let me give you an example. The average price of a house in London is £365,000. Under the current system, someone with these assets faces losing up to 41 per cent of this figure in care costs. Were a cap of £60,000 introduced, this percentage could be cut in half.

In the coalition government’s Mid-Term Review there were some encouraging signs that sorting out care will be our legacy. As I anticipated, the government reaffirmed its commitment to the principles of Dilnot. But more telling, and encouraging, was the language used in the foreword of the review – which confirmed that an announcement on care reform will be made in the coming weeks.

Currently, the state will only start to pick up care costs once a person has less than £23,250 in savings and assets. But this means test for social care in England and Wales is one of the meanest in existence. By contrast, my proposals (based on recommendations from the Dilnot Commission) would raise this figure to £100,000. This change alone would make a huge difference to thousands across the country and would make social care more generous. But because this figure is not the more easily-understood ‘cap’, it rarely gets airtime in the media.

A cap will require new legislation and detailed implementation by local councils over the next few years, so if my proposal were adopted nothing would change until 2015 or 2016. This is an important point to make to those worried that this would affect them in the near future.

I also agree with many members of the public that the 440,000 pensioners who live abroad but who still receive the winter fuel payment should stop receiving the benefit. This is an anomaly in the system that is clearly unfair. But this move would save £100m – nowhere near enough money to sort out our broken care system.

Of course, I would like to pretend there is some pain free way in which the reforms could be paid for, but so far no-one has come up a workable solution. If the Treasury does come up with such a proposal then I will be the first person to applaud it.

The next few weeks will reveal whether this coalition government has the political will and determination that Labour never had to put this issue right. I believe that it does, and I am hopeful we will finally be able to deliver peace of mind to families up and down the country.

Actor Tony Robinson (C) joins campaigners protesting in support of social care opposite Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat MP for Sutton and Cheam and the former care services minister

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.