Could social care win the election?

Tim Cooper, chief executive at United Response.


Despite the reason behind this election, it’s still a ‘general’ election after all – one based on the full list of things which matter to voters up and down the land. If it wasn’t for the six-letter-word-beginning-with-B, social care reform would probably be higher up this list – and it certainly needs to be. So as the parties begin to launch their manifestos this week and election hype rises to a new level, we should expect to see social care reform playing a large part. But will we?

Even in these bizarre times, social care has stayed on the agenda… just. Quite an achievement given the limited capacity in parliament for any domestic policy since 2016. The problem is that care is an issue because it’s so bad, not because of the fantastic new models of inclusive community care and support which are emerging.

We in the social care sector have been guilty to some extent, focusing only on crisis and a lack of funding to fix it. The negative perceptions this creates undermine the real progress we have made in developing and delivering new community based approaches to our support.

For well over a decade a social care system funded in a way politicians think is acceptable to the British public has eluded policy-makers. It has beleaguered successive Prime Ministers, was (skilfully) dodged by the longest-serving Health Secretary in British political history, and famously cost the Government its parliamentary majority at the last election.

A former boss of mine used to remind staff: ‘Bring me solutions not problems’. On his first day in office, the current PM promised a new solution to ‘fix social care’ by the autumn – then swiftly kicked it into the long grass, reportedly after seeing the plan the Government had spent two years on. He told the Health Secretary to ‘do it again’.

The stakes are high and on one level it is understandable policy makers won’t stick their neck out, but if we need anything now it’s political courage and foresight.

Notwithstanding that most people don’t understand social care until they or a loved one need to use it, their perceptions are based on reports of a failing system, the billions it would cost to fix and where this money should come from – namely from themselves.

Politicians know that money has to come from somewhere. Raising tax is unpopular, insurance schemes subtracted from pay slips are a hard sell, Government taking a chunk of value from people’s houses loses elections. And then there’s the fact that over half the investment in social care supports disabled people who need care and support throughout their lives.

So the story of social care has become Kafkaesque: negative perceptions posing political danger leading to postponement and evasion, while the existing system gets worse and the process starts again.

Manifestos coming out this week must change this narrative to break the cycle and attempt to reframe reform as the positive opportunity it really is – painting a picture of the great work already being done at the centre of local communities across the country and how this could become the norm.

Manifestos should show how valuable social care is, not only in financial terms but in terms of the difference it makes to communities. People might then understand reform and the benefits it would provide. If the narrative is changed and this vision is sold to the electorate, they might consider fair ways to fund it, removing the political danger so that politicians have the confidence to put real choices to the people.

But it’s not just politicians who have a responsibility to change perceptions. Providers like ourselves at United Response and others in the sector have a duty to demonstrate what good care and support looks like too. Organisations have gone on about the ‘Care Crisis’ and billions needed to fix it for too long. This has undermined progress and emphasises the ‘bad’ over the ‘good’.

That’s why we’ve been working with Social Care Future and supporting their brighter vision for social care. This approach centres upon the importance of speaking of social care in terms of hope and possibility. As a sector we want to offer a positive vision of the future as well as spelling out how our work might serve as potential solutions to take us there.

There is one narrative of social care not mentioned so far and, believe it or not, it’s positive. All the parties broadly agree that a successful care system must be jointly delivered and fully integrated with community health services and other local public provision. Disabled people, children, elderly people, families – people across local communities brought together to access a range of health and care services that everyone needs.

Perhaps another ask for manifestos this week is an agreement for parties to work together in the next Parliament to sell this shared vision. Perhaps then we might add a new slogan: ‘Let’s get social care done’.


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