All political parties must act now to tackle social care funding

The government must not be put off by the costs of Andrew Dilnot’s recommendations on social care; if it does not act now the future price will be greater still

It is widely recognised that 2012 could be a make or break year for Britain’s economy, and it is just as pivotal for social care. It’s the year when our main political parties will either begin fixing a disintegrating system, or allow the situation to continue deteriorating as demand for support outpaces funding.

Last week, 63 organisations signed an open letter to the coalition government warning that some people faced losing their homes due to spiralling social care bills, and calling for urgent cross-party talks to sort out the system of social care in England and Wales, ahead of a white paper due in the spring.

Economist Andrew Dilnot’s independent review of social care funding, commissioned by the government, was published last summer. It recommended a £1.7bn increase in funding and a £35,000 cap on the amount that an individual is expected to contribute to social care costs. Although the Dilnot commission focused largely on older people, its recommendations also provide solid foundations for improving support for disabled people. But the government shows signs it considers these proposals too expensive to implement immediately, and it has taken more than nine months to get to a white paper stage.

There have been efforts to reform social care before but these have always failed, largely due to disagreements between political parties. The danger is that, yet again, this issue will be kicked into the bureaucratic long grass. But we can no longer delay: cross-party talks have to find a way forward, based on Dilnot’s findings. The long-term costs of failing to invest now will be far greater for the millions of people who rely on social care at present and those who will in the future.

Looking solely at the overall funding of social care can obscure the real lives behind the numbers. That is why we asked people with learning disabilities and their families to describe to us what good, skilled support means to them. The results – published in our Life Support report – reveal how crucial social care is.

At its most simple, it helps people to perform basic but essential tasks such as cooking, washing, shopping and living in a dignified way. Some described how skilled support workers understood not only their unique needs but also their talents, and helped them to develop greater independence – through working or volunteering, for example. One mother said her son’s support is the difference between “just a daily existence” and a “fulfilling and useful life”.

Without good quality support, many people would see their physical and mental health deteriorate. Already, far too many are not receiving the support they need, and are struggling as a result.

The irony is that we should be celebrating: we need more funding because of the progress made in helping older and disabled people to live longer, more active and independent lives.

We must not waste this opportunity to tackle social care funding. Dilnot’s recommendations alone will not do enough to improve support for disabled people, but they are an essential first step. There is a cost in the short term, but we stand to lose more if we don’t act.

• Su Sayer is chief executive of United Response.