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

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

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.