The Andy Burnham column: ‘Courage is needed to sort social care problem’

Andy Burnham MP
Andy Burnham MP

On Monday morning, there was a sad story in the news. It emerged that Mrs Iris Sibley, an 89 year-old lady from Gloucestershire, had spent six months in a hospital bed because an appropriate care home place could not been found for her.

As well as being bad for Mrs Sibley, this cost the NHS around £80,000 and prevented the bed from bed being used by another patient.

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all about this story was its treatment as shock, headline news.

Speak to any nurse and they will tell you that it is far from being an isolated incident.

Sadly, thre are thousands of Mrs Sibleys out there in the NHS today. What has changed is that the broadcasters seem only now to be waking up to that fact.

Forgive me if I find this more than a bit frustrating. For at least the last seven years, I have been warning that, if social care in England is allowed to collapse, it will in the end drag the NHS down with it.

That is now happening before our eyes - and, still, the Government does nothing about it.

In fact, it’s worse - they are still cutting council budgets and making matters worse not better.

Over the last seven years, councils like ours in Wigan have seen massive cuts to their budgets for social care.

During the same time, demand for social care services has been going up and up. In these circumstances, something has to give.

The quality of care has gone down, as has the number of people receiving support. It is the NHS which is left to pick up the pieces and it is now buckling under the strain.

The truth is that this short-sighted approach makes no financial sense.

For the want of spending a few pounds in people’s homes on decent social care, we seem happy to spend tens of thousands of pounds keeping people in hospital beds. There is only so long you can continue with that approach before the whole system comes crashing down.

What is needed is a major reform to the way the system works.

The time has come to stop treating social care as the poor relation to the NHS and to bring it into the same system.

If this happened, and NHS hospitals employed social care teams, they would be able to re-settle people like Mrs Sibley back in her own home, or in a nursing home, as soon as she was ready to leave hospital.

This would be much better for patients and allow hospitals to function much more efficiently than they currently do.

Alongside this, we need to reform the way social care is funded.

I tried to do this when I was Health Secretary back in 2009. In my view, the only way it can be properly integrated with the NHS is if we fund it on the same basis - where everyone contributes through tax and where everyone is then covered for all of their care needs.

The way I proposed to do this was through a levy of 10 per cent on what people leave behind.

The reason why we can’t simply raise general taxation to pay for better care is that it would be unfair on the working age population who are already struggling.

The truth is that today’s generation of pensioners have never paid for their social care through the taxes they have paid during their working life.

That is because it was not included in the NHS when it was set up in 1948. So, in recognition of that, it is right that people should make a contribution to the costs of their care.

But the strength of the system that I have proposed is that people would be protected from losing their homes and savings to care costs, as happens at the moment. When I put forward this plan before the 2010 General Election, the Tories branded it as “Gordon’s Death Tax” alongside pictures of gravestones.

I would be the first to admit it was controversial. But, unlike the Tories, at least I had a plan. And, to be honest, I still stand by it. There are no easy options when it comes to reforming the financing of social care.

Fixing this problem will require political courage. The trouble is that there is a distinct lack of that in today’s House of Commons.

Sometimes, social progress and the common good requires us to raise new taxes.

But fear of right-wing newspapers prevents most MPs from ever suggesting them. And the consequence of this political cowardice is that thousands of older people continue to receive inadequate care or lose everything they have worked for to pay for it.

It also means that, for the foreseeable future at least, there will be many, many more Mrs Sibleys who, from no fault of their own, are made to feel like a burden on the system.

Hospitals will increasingly become like warehouses of older people. What a depressing vision that is of the ageing society. Surely we can do better than that?

I think we can and I live in hope that MPs will finally find the courage to do something about this long-standing problem. But I am not holding my breath.