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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.