Brexit’s social care betrayal of disabled people

Neil Heslop

Our Chief Executive Neil Heslop talks about how every government has failed when it comes to social care.

The difference is while Brexit is an argument about conflicting visions of our future, social care failure is today’s everyday reality of disabled people struggling for dignity and independence.

Boris Johnson and I are both fifty-five years old and our adult lifetime has seen only all party political failure on social care. On his first day, our new ‘Get Brexit Done’ Prime Minister announced from Downing Street that he was going to ‘fix’ social care. 

It’s a badge of shame that for a generation political leaders of all parties have failed to do just that. Other nations have successfully brought about far-reaching reform, while UK political parties have been mired in petty squabbling.

Social care, politicians and power-grabs

Since 1997, we’ve seen Commissions, Inquiries, report after report, committee after committee. They all highlighted how social care was heading for disaster. 

Tragically for hundreds of thousands of disabled people, any moves to strengthen the system have persistently faltered, been torn asunder by political power grabs, in-fighting and tribalism. Finger pointing, false outrage, and political point scoring have typified the tactics of many Ministers over the years, not to mention their opposition counterparts. 

Meanwhile, our politicians have an ill-informed preoccupation with the over 65s. They have little, if any, true understanding of or plans for working age disabled adults who can and want to work. This is despite the fact that they account for more than half of annual social care spending. 

Disabled people risk being left behind

As manifestos are shaped around who is best placed to deliver Brexit or not, the daily devastation caused by a system that is not fit for purpose continues unabated, shaming politicians of all parties. The stark reality is that disabled people risk being left behind in poverty and isolation whatever the election brings. 

Our political parties are now in full swing trying to deliver a critical knockout blow to their opponents before we go to the polls in December. With politics more divided than ever, a lasting solution that meets the needs of disabled people seems more elusive than at any time. 

A timeline of the social care crisis since 1999

The current crisis hasn’t come out of nowhere. As far back as 1999, the writing was on the wall. A Royal Commission recommended that all long-term personal care should be free. The Blair Government rejected it. 

In 2006, Sir Derek Wanless’s report set out the challenges facing social care over the next 20 years (PDF). His review identified chronic gaps in services. Calling for a rise in funding to keep pace with demand for good quality care and more people needing support.  It was ignored.

In 2010, Brown’s Labour Government proposed wide-ranging social care reform. An NHS style National Care Service would be created, and part-funded by some form of compulsory payment. It was savaged by a Conservative Party on an election footing. They accused Health Secretary Andy Burnham of planning a secret ‘death tax’ on people with estates over £500,000.

Social care is continually pushed aside

After Labour was toppled in 2010, Cameron and Clegg’s No. 10 Rose Garden love in talked the talk. Their Tory-Liberal coalition programme stated understanding for ‘the urgency of reforming the system of social care’. A year later, Sir Andrew Dilnot’s cross party Commission again highlighted that the funding system for social care was in urgent need of reform. The recommendations for a spending cap and an increase to the means-test threshold for residential care, soon fell by the wayside. 

The coalition wavered and the Tories became obsessed with the rise of UKIP. Cameron promised a Brexit referendum. To his surprise, he found himself leading a majority Conservative Government in 2015. Overwhelmed by the 40-year Tory psychodrama over Europe he kicked any idea of social care reforms into the long grass. Even the stalwart of right-wing thinking Iain Duncan-Smith resigned as Secretary of State of DWP in protest at George Osborne’s swingeing disability benefit cuts.

Disabled people continue to bear the brunt of austerity

From 2016, May’s premiership was marked by disabled people continuing to bear the brunt of austerity. During the disastrous 2017 election campaign, the Tories proposed that people pay for care in their own home unless they had less than £100,000 in assets. Labour and Liberal critics of the ‘dementia tax’ ran riot in the media as the issue drove a scythe through Conservative support.

Despite a manifesto commitment, on six occasions, May’s Government failed to meet its own deadline for publishing a Green Paper on social care reform. A year ago, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock indignantly denied claims in The Times that the green paper had been pulled because of Brexit pressures — saying that the plan was receiving its ‘finishing touches’. He now feebly blames ‘narrow partisan politics’ for delays. 

Meanwhile, years of cuts to council budgets have blighted the lives of disabled people across the UK. To this day, no meaningful plan is in sight. We first hear from a faceless Downing Street briefing, and latterly Hancock on BBC Radio 4, that firm proposals on social care may not be in the Conservative manifesto put before the electorate on 12 December 2019.

Westminster’s broken promises on social care

Broken promises, point scoring and political paralysis. All Westminster parties have utterly failed to provide a lasting solution for social care funding.

Given the human cost that results from our unfair and dysfunctional system, Boris’s words on his first day as PM will be as hollow to disabled people as his ‘Do or Die’ Halloween Brexit promise to leave voters, unless social care substance is part of his ambition for a better Britain. 

No doubt Corbyn’s Labour manifesto will promise much on social care and half the country won’t believe or trust it. One wonders if and when our political leaders will grow up and put in place a compromise that all parties can live with?  Sound familiar to our polarising and debilitating Brexit odyssey?

The difference is while Brexit is an argument about conflicting visions of our future, social care failure is today’s everyday reality of disabled people struggling for dignity and independence.