Ever since Gordon Brown announced plans to give free personal care to the elderly late last year, the policy has faced a sustained barrage of criticism. And it isn’t showing any signs of stopping.
While in theory, free personal care for the elderly in their own home sounds like a great idea, the practicalities of it could well outweigh the benefits, according to leading figures in social care.
One of the major bugbears is the cost. The government reckons it’ll cost £670 million, but nobody else seems to; the vast majority of commentators think they have significantly underestimated.
Where the money will come from is another bone of contention. There is no new government money for this, it will come from a variety of sources; the majority, £420 million, will come from existing Department of Health budgets, while local authorities will provide the remaining £250 million from ‘efficiency savings.’
‘Efficiency savings’ is a woolly phrase at the best of times, but it is particularly worrying for council leaders because they are already trying to find millions of savings in anticipation of swingeing budget cuts in 2011.
Now some, including the heads of Hampshire and Essex councils, are publicly warning that to pay for the policy could mean council tax rises of a couple percent – never popular among the public, even less so when there is a recession on – or cuts to frontline services.
But the objections are not solely for financial reasons. A senior figure within social care told me that the policy could create perverse incentives for people to not go into residential care; if they went into a care home, if they have assets worth in excess of £23,000 they would have to pay for their place, whereas in their own home, care is free.
As a result, older people could stay in their own home for longer than it is really safe for them to do so, and could also become isolated, if they are housebound. Is that really a better option than residential care, where they have round-the-clock care, plus the company of the staff and other residents?
However, this unpopular policy may never make it into force. Lord Lipsey, a Labour peer – and vocal critic of the bill – believes that it has no chance of coming into force before the election. What happens after will depend on which party wins.
There is a feeling among some – including, perhaps inevitably, Conservative health spokesman Andrew Landsley – that the policy was announced to gain political capital.
If what its critics say will happen does, the bill could well end up backfiring on Labour, as well as the social care industry. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope they are wrong.