Row delays green paper on care funding for older and disabled people
Long-awaited plans for a radical new approach to funding the care of older and disabled people are being held up by a Whitehall row over fears that the proposals will be portrayed as a £10bn raid on benefits claimed by 4 million people.
The plans, billed one of the “big ideas” for a Labour fourth term, are due to be set out as options in a green paper that has been postponed repeatedly. The launch was expected finally on Tuesday of this week, but was again put off with no explanation.
Ministers promised that the green paper would appear in “the spring”, but are now running out of time before the summer parliamentary recess starts on 21 July and the Norwich North by-election two days later.
Recriminations are flying between government departments over the handling of the issue. The Department of Health, which has led the development of the green paper, stands accused of getting policy and politics badly out of line and of failing to spot the potential for deep controversy. Health ministers say they have always made it clear that the document would set out tough choices.
The June government reshuffle has compounded matters in that the health secretary, Andy Burnham, and work and pensions secretary, Yvette Cooper, who is understood to have been blocking publication, are both new in post.
The green paper is intended to kick-start a debate on how to provide, and pay for, the care and support of the rapidly growing population of older people and the swelling numbers of younger people with disabilities. One aim is to try to stop people having to sell their homes to fund residential care.
Options believed to be in the paper include a social insurance levy on people in work or a means-tested, one-off payment of perhaps £12,000 – ideas that, as speculation, have already sparked criticism in the rightwing press.
There is mounting concern at how such proposals would play if unveiled formally ahead of a crucial by-election. But Cooper and her officials are more worried by a further option of converting two existing benefits, together worth some £10bn a year and paid irrespective of personal means, into discretionary social care grants.
The two benefits are attendance allowance (AA), paid to 1.6 million people aged 65 or over at an annual cost of £4.4bn, and the care component of disability living allowance (DLA), paid largely to about 2.5 million younger people with disabilities at a cost of at least £6bn.
Both benefits are designed to help people who need assistance with daily domestic life and are paid at either £47.10 or £70.35 a week, or in the case of DLA, also £18.65. The cash is not supposed to pay for professional help, but for some of the extra living costs associated with being disabled.
Critics say that the benefits are poorly targeted, because they are not means-tested and depend on people making a claim; that there is a lack of hard evidence that the money is spent as intended; and that the system duplicates the social care assessment and grant process run by local authorities.
The green paper, which would apply to England in the first instance, is thought to suggest transferring the £6bn cost over time to local government, increasing by almost 50% the funds available to councils to pay grants to people assessed as needing care but lacking the means to pay for it themselves.
In a previous document, The Case for Change, ministers said last year that the benefits “might be part of a new care and support system”, but “any changes that may emerge will not affect existing benefit recipients”.
Charities and lobby groups for older and disabled people have been keeping their powder dry. But experienced ministers and officials have bitter memories of demonstrations against disability benefit changes in Labour’s first term, when wheelchair users chained themselves to the Downing Street gates, doused in red paint.
Age Concern and Help the Aged, the newly merged charity for older people, says AA provides a flexible, national entitlement that promotes independence and choice irrespective of personal means. Any new system must retain such elements.
“It is not a fortune, but it can make a huge difference to someone’s life,” a spokesman for the charity said.
Liz Sayce, the chief executive of disability charity Radar, said: “The real importance of DLA, and why it is popular, is that it covers the extra costs of disability and you know where you are with it because you are assessed on the basis of national entitlement criteria and it is portable: you can take it with you if you move and not worry that local authorities have different local criteria.”
There is dismay among some health department officials that Burnham has proved unable to force publication of the green paper. They say the options contained within it should have come as no surprise to Cooper, who ought to have been familiar with them in her previous role as chief secretary to the Treasury. In that role, she signed up to The Case for Change.
Gordon Brown had been expected to front the launch of the document, had it gone ahead this week, but the continuing wrangling in Whitehall makes his involvement increasingly doubtful.