Is the British government trying to hammer home a very important policy message? The care crisis in Britain—a legacy of former prime minister Tony Blair’s multi-billion-pound “New Labour” government—will reportedly make a painful impact on millions of people. Taxpayers will pick up the tab for patients not being given the best care: made sicker, placed in hospital longer, and unable to return home, and the strain will hit vulnerable pensioners most.
It would be easy to imagine that Prime Minister Theresa May would make use of this narrative to drive through vital reforms in the sector. She would then bask in the applause of professionals and voters alike. Alas, there is a grave risk of this not happening. The next government after the June 8 General Election result is likely to be far from a united one. The pro-Brexit wing—hardliners in both Parliament and among their supporters—would seek to re-invest in old-age care, and are likely to insist that the state should pay for more rather than less. The new government will have to govern against the trend. Hence, many in the profession are appalled at the prospect of the United Kingdom plunging into austerity before Brexit negotiations are even complete. It’s the moment for social democrats to be bold and take action, which would make the care crisis a major issue in the next parliament.
Yet there are very few government-led social policies that can, with any sort of consistency, be defined by this period of political turmoil. Should social democrats do something to help or do nothing?
One suggestion is to agree on a clear, widely applied minimum standard of care for all the elderly—something not yet in the U.K. Act. This would be a good place to start, in line with the massive scale of the social care crises. It would also push the debate onto social mores, allowing those who want to see the state increasingly downplay its role, and showing the public that they are not being sacrificed to ends not worth pursing.
A choice to cut or tweak various parts of the Care and Support Act of 2015 might also be justified: a good example here is in the way the Government in Scotland is currently trying to set aside certain benefits for retired pensioners, but the provision has been far from unblemished, leading to the accusations of unfairness.
This has led Labour’s shadow social services minister Jon Ashworth to offer a “postcrisis review” for care in Britain, which would review options for changes to existing legislation in light of the financial pressures the care crisis is going to bring. Although he stopped short of suggesting that the new generation of pensions and the smaller means-tested benefit scheme should be scrapped— a move that would be potentially very harmful to elderly people—he pushed for an end to the current system of means-testing for pensioners of late.
Abolishing and launching a costly revamp of the entire care legislation on a handful of well-intentioned, essentially parallel, issues is not worth the trouble: A useful regime, set at the start of the century, would be better left alone. Even on its own, those systems are burdensome: the Care Quality Commission, the independent government body responsible for assessing the performance of care services, has a long waiting list. Social democrats would no doubt back the idea of a large departmental budget for reviewing social care in the event of a crisis—otherwise it would amount to a fox guarding the hen house.
What is needed is a comprehensive wholesale overhaul of existing legislation—a review that starts with a carefully designed and costly social care guarantee that has the simplicity and broad appeal of any number of post-Brexit legislation. This could even trigger a long-overdue strike by social democratic parliamentarians against private providers of long-term social care.
Both, social democrats and the British public, would profit from such a review.
Adam Ozimek is a Research Analyst in the Research Division at the British think tank the Reform. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Oz.