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Barbara Keeley: "We don’t need more commissions on social care. There is enough thinking on this"

7 min read

Barbara Keeley believes there needs to be a shift in language if there is ever to be a consensus in parliament on funding social care. After more than 20 years fighting the sector’s corner, the shadow minister is ready to deliver change. She talks to Nicholas Mairs

It is a brief defined by its search for an elusive answer, so it seems fitting that Barbara Keeley should take up the reins for Labour. Keeley has spent more than two decades, in both national and local politics, looking for a solution to Britain’s social care dilemma. It has not only been her “vocation”, she says, but an issue that’s “close to my heart”.

As vice chair of Social Services at Trafford Council in the 1990s, Keeley led the UK’s then largest ever survey on carer issues, before she arrived at Westminster in 2005. Her early years in Parliament were spent fighting the sector’s corner with Labour ministers “again and again and again”, she says, before Gordon Brown put her in charge of drawing up the party’s policy on social care reform in 2007.

She now finds herself shadow minister for social care, with the added remit of mental health. But the big difference this time, she says, is that she has the chance to use what she’s learned in those long years of campaigning, analysing and consulting to develop something tangible – and, she hopes, deliverable under a Labour government.

We meet the day after Theresa May is accused of kicking the issue into the long grass yet again, as the Prime Minister rejected a plea from 90 MPs for a new cross-party convention on the future of health and social care. 

But while the feeling of despondency among some of Keeley’s colleagues remains raw, for the shadow minister, it’s quite the opposite. “I really do believe that we don’t need more commissions,” she says confidently.

“One of the think-tanks keeps publishing that we’ve had four major independent reviews and 12 green and white papers on social care.

“There is enough thinking on this, there is enough knowledge on this, there are enough options on this.

“It’s a question of people getting a hold of what we know and saying, ‘we as a party are going to do this, now, what’s your position?’ and not running away from it.”

Keeley cites past examples of cross-party action turning around ailing policy areas, but says the immediate hold-up on social care lies squarely at the feet of ministers, after a series of mooted and subsequently shelved ideas.

She rues the squandering of public money on the ultimately abandoned recommendations of the Dilnot report and its suggested £35,000 cap on costs last year. This was followed by the infamous and arguably campaign-defining Tory U-turn on what came to be dubbed the “dementia tax”.

“I actually feel there’s a time for cross-party talks and when we were covering social care in our party manifesto for the general election we said that as we develop further our proposals for the future, we would engage in cross party talks. But I think the difficulty is the Conservative government has ditched what was legislated for, even in the Dilnot review, where they had proposals for a cap on care costs for that particular way of funding care. The Care Act 2014, that’s been ditched now, and that’s been confirmed now by the previous care minister, Jackie Doyle-Price. So, if you sat down tomorrow you wouldn’t have anything to compare.”

On Labour’s own stance she says the groundwork is there, albeit with no concrete answers, and were it not for the inconvenience of a change of government in 2010 after the Brown administration’s white paper and then a snap election last year amid Labour’s policy cycle, progress would be greater.

She says the aim remains the creation of an NHS-style National Care Service, where “the basic tenet is sharing and pooling the risk”, but admits a change in the demographic and political landscape in that time calls for some rejigging. But decisions on whether to fund that service through a wealth tax, an employer care contribution or a new social care levy need to be nailed down.

“We’ve been working on it since [2010]. We are a lot further along than the government is. The government is working towards a green paper. We have a white paper and a set of ideas that we had in 2010, which were on a programme for government. We had a health manifesto in 2015, so we built on that if you like. But I understand that we need to revisit those numbers, because even in a year things change very substantially.”

But she says the general principle stands: “Tens of thousands contributed to the consultation in 2010 and having looked at it again I don’t think it’ll change.

“I’ve spent since 2002 talking to people about care, talking to carers and I think you get the same things all the time.

“People want care that keeps them independent, people want human care, they don’t want someone different from the person that came yesterday, who rushes in and out in ten minutes.”

Labour’s 2010 social care policy is perhaps best remembered for the Conservative campaign’s response. The proposed 10% levy on estates to fund care was dubbed the “death tax” – illustrated by the plastering of “R.I.P. OFF” alongside a tombstone across the nation’s billboards.

Keeley says those tactics and the use of such language, resurrected again by Philip Hammond in the autumn budget, only further proved the need for a change of tone if there is to be an outbreak of consensus in parliament on funding social care.

“I think for negotiations on this to be successful, the people engaging would have to not use that sort of language,” she says.

“I think it was unfortunate the chancellor said in his budget speech ‘we won’t be implementing a death tax’. That’s not the right thing for a chancellor to do.

“I’m sure he knows fine well that that’s what the Conservative party called our proposals for an inheritance levy and clearly you’re not going to get on in negotiations and cross party working if you keep attacking one of the options.

“Because it really means you’re dismissing an option before you’re even discussing it.”

Seven years on and a different government found itself forced to salvage its campaign from one of its most controversial tenets: the at least equally provocatively named “dementia tax”.

Keeley asserts the difference however is the term’s origins, with the latter hailing from professionals and charities who have long opposed the policy of a floor on costs – in this case where a person can be charged down to their last £100,000, including their house.

“The dementia tax label I think came from outside during the heat of a general election campaign. But I think those organisations and charities who have worked with people with dementia and their families have used that term for some time to describe the fact that people with dementia end up paying catastrophic costs, that’s a difficult label to shake when that’s the situation really.”

But Keeley believes an answer to building consensus on funding social care will come sooner or later.

As shadow minister she of course channels much of her fire at the “swingeing cuts” totalling billions to local council budgets, the increase in malnourished elderly people after meals on wheels was taken away and the diminished role of carers, who she recalls once turned their hands to gardening.

But she reveals a sense of “heightened optimism” that change is on the horizon – if nothing else because as pressure builds and the ongoing winter crisis spills into the care sector, ministers will be forced to.

On 2018, she says: “It’s an interesting year. There’s an absolutely heightened expectation now.”

Keeley says the storm of the ongoing crisis in social care funding, the Government green paper due in the summer and latterly Labour’s own developing policy, where movement was promised at last year’s conference, should mean the sands are shifting in the right direction.

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