Isabel Hardman

Why social care could be heading for the long grass once again

Why social care could be heading for the long grass once again
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How are ministers going to deal with the social care crisis? This could be a weekly question on Coffee House for the next few years, along with what is Labour’s policy on Brexit and when will Theresa May decide to stand down. As I wrote last week, the different parties are all claiming they want cross-party talks but not really doing much talking to one another. Now, I understand that ministers are planning to do a lot more talking before they make any sort of decision on how to create a long-term financial settlement for the sector.

As she started to unpick her disastrous manifesto proposal for a ‘dementia tax’, Theresa May promised a ‘consultation paper, a government green paper’ on social care funding. That was reiterated in the Queen’s Speech, which promised that ‘my ministers will work to improve social care an will bring forward proposals for consultation’. Green papers are generally consultations which feed into a more formal white paper on a policy before the government publishes the legislation to implement that policy. But green papers do not necessarily lead to anything, and some can be greener than others in the sense that they don’t set out any decided policies at all, and merely ask for views on the different aspects of a policy problem.

Quite understandably, many senior Conservatives are so bruised by their experience in the snap election that they are keen for this green paper to be as green as possible, possibly so green that it might resemble long grass. Those working in the sector have noticed that there is much more of an emphasis on the prospect of a ‘consultation’ rather than a ‘green paper’, which they worry means ministers are thinking less about a policy they might implement soon and more about sending out once again for views from social care professionals who are increasingly wearying of offering their views to a dusty shelf. I understand that it is much more likely that the social care consultation will be a much more open and consultative process than originally conceived, offering very few firm proposals.

Theresa May’s second-in-command Damian Green is leading on this policy, and holds regular meetings of an inter-ministerial group on social care. He is said to be very keen to pull together the different departments responsible for social care and move on from the mess of the manifesto. Previously, the policy fell between the Communities and Local Government department and Health, which made it easy for it to be conveniently forgotten. But even a more intentional approach from government than doing nothing before bunging out a deeply flawed policy in the manifesto without warning won’t get around the fact that all the options are unsavoury. All of them involve people paying more money, whether it be from general taxation, a ‘dementia tax’, a ‘death tax’, or other politically unattractive proposals. There is no policy which can be summarised in a headline as ‘social care solved without anyone needing to pay’. That isn’t true at the moment, either: it’s just that people largely have no idea of the costs of care until they or their parents find themselves needing it.

If the green paper is to be very green, this will sorely disappoint those MPs such as Sarah Wollaston and Norman Lamb who have been calling for it to have a clear timeline for implementing a clear policy. Ministers probably don’t feel they can have another row about money for social care, even a row involving a decent policy. So brace yourself for a lot more talking, and an even longer crisis.