A cap on care costs is the only answer for our troubled sector

Failure to tackle social care funding will cost the government far more in the long run, warns care home chief Leon Smith

As the publication of the much-anticipated social care white paper draws closer, it seems we’re still far from clear on what exactly we want a new funding system to look like.

Earlier this month, it was reported that there is disagreement about the level at which a cap on care costs should be set; Andrew Dilnot originally suggested £35,000, but a working group has proposed that it should be more like £60,000. It hasn’t been confirmed whether the cap will include so-called hotel costs – the ongoing costs for food, heating, etc – and how much this is likely to amount to. Some say it will be just £6,000 a year, but in my experience the true amount is likely to be far more.

There is also ongoing debate about third party contributions, and whether family members will be required to contribute to older people’s care, not to mention a lack of recognition of the actual cost of care, which is far higher than the amount local authorities are currently prepared to pay.

All of these are important issues that will shape the social care sector for years to come. But, at this stage, none of them really matter. These questions can, and must, wait.

What’s far more important is that the core principle of the Dilnot report proposals – the concept of a capped amount for which an individual is responsible, after which the government takes responsibility – is implemented.

The introduction of a cap on the costs of care is the only answer for our troubled sector. At present, it is estimated that one in ten of us will face care costs of more than £100,000; a figure that can only increase as we continue to live longer. Yet there is no system in place to deal with these costs. Individuals have to sell their homes, unable to receive state support until they are practically penniless.

This is one of the last areas of society where we have not yet pooled our risks, and introducing a cap will be a revolution. It will truly remove the fear of growing old. With a cap, everyone can plan for their future, either by saving up throughout their lifetime or by taking out insurance – just as we do to remove the risk of large unexpected costs if we lose a valuable possession or have a car accident.

At present, it is far from a done deal that the government will bite the bullet and put this system into practice. The Treasury has been dropping hints about the difficulty it will face in meeting the costs – and of course, £1.7bn a year is a considerable sum. What we must remember, though, is that a failure to tackle the social care funding system will cost the government far more in the long run. Older people will fill the NHS’s limited supply of hospital beds, costing far more than if they were in a care home.

If social care stakeholders keep airing their disagreements over the details of Dilnot’s proposals in public, this could give the government the excuse they need to delay a decision, or to drop the idea altogether. This is the closest we have ever been to a solution, so this must not be allowed to happen.

The importance of this issue simply cannot be overstated. For years, it has been pushed aside by politicians who inevitably concern themselves more with the short term concerns that will win them votes. We must show the government that this time, they cannot shirk from their responsibilities. We must keep on protesting so that it becomes an issue that the government can’t ignore.

If, as I sincerely hope, the white paper does state an intention to introduce Dilnot’s plans, we can turn our focus to the issues outlined above. Until then, we must set aside anything that distracts us from the need to introduce the core principles of Andrew Dilnot’s proposals; there will be time for that later. For now, we must come together and make the government recognise that our creaking care system needs urgent, drastic reform.

Leon Smith is chief executive of the of Nightingale care home in south London