The coalition fails to rise to the challenge on social care

The £75,000 cap on costs planned by the government will help just 10 per cent of those needing care.

More than 18 months after Andrew Dilnot's landmark report into social care was published, the coalition will finally unveil its planned reforms today. In a statement to the Commons, Jeremy Hunt will announce that the government will introduce a cap of £75,000 on care costs and increase the threshold for means-tested support from £23,250 to £123,000, so that no one with assets worth less than this amount is forced to pay. The £1bn-a-year cost of the plan will be met through higher national insurance contributions on employers and a six-year freeze in the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000 (George Osborne's famous 2007 pledge to increase it to £1m now being a distant memory of a pre-austerity age). 

The first point to note about the £75,000 cap is that under the coalition's timetable it won't actually be introduced until April 2017. Thus, as shadow care minister Liz Kendall has noted, it "won't do anything for the hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled people who are facing a desperate daily struggle to get the care and support they need right now".

In addition, the cap, which excludes food and accommodation costs (typically around £7,000-£10,000 a year), is set a significantly higher level than that recommended by Dilnot. His report called for a cap of between £25,000 and £50,000 (settling on a figure of £35,000) and warned that anything outside of this range "would not meet our criteria of fairness or sustainability". A cap above £50,000 "could mean people with lower incomes and lower wealth would not receive adequate protection." Even if we adjust the £75,000 cap for inflation (it is based on 2017 price levels), that still leaves it at £61,000 - £11,000 higher than Dilnot's recommended maximum.

Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, Dilnot said that he regretted the coalition's decision to opt for a £75,000 cap but recognised that "the public finances are in a pretty tricky state". By capping costs for the first time, the plan would still "radically reduce anxiety", he argued. But others have been less generous. 

Labour has pointed out that since it will take the average person around four years before they reach the cap, it will not benefit the majority of patients, most of whom don't make it this far. Dot Gibson, the general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, estimates that the proposals will help "just 10 per cent of those needing care". Labour is currently developing its own social care plan as part of its policy review but is likely to recommend a cap no greater than £50,000. 

The government's hope is that a cap of £75,000 will encourage insurers to offer policies to cover costs below this amount. As Hunt said on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, "We don't want anyone to pay anything at all. By setting an upper limit to how much people have to pay, then it makes it possible for insurance companies to offer policies for people to have options on their pensions so that anything you pay under the cap is covered."

But Labour is highlighting the fact that Nick Starling, the director of general insurance and health at the Association of British Insurers, has previously dismissed this as wishful thinking. He told the health select committee in November 2011: "I do not think there will be pre-funded products. That is unlikely. I speak on behalf of the insurance industry, but I bring independence in the sense that, except for the immediate needs annuities which [Chris] Mr Horlick [of Care Partnership Assurance] provides, there are no products out there. I am not grinding a particular axe about particular forms of products. I am saying that, in a sense, we have a chance to think in quite an open way, unencumbered by a whole forest of products already out there. In that sense, the thinking we have been doing on this is independent."

A cap on costs is, as Dilnot suggested, better than no cap at all. But unless Hunt springs a surprise on MPs today, it is already clear that this will not be a lasting solution to the care problem. For that, one suspects, we will have to wait for a change of government.  

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will announce the government's planned social care reforms today.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.