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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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.