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Ministers should use Devon as a guinea pig for social care reforms

Ministers should use Devon as a guinea pig for social care reforms
4 min read

It we can get social care right in ‘ageing’ Devon we will get it right across the country, writes Sir Hugo Swire

Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community,” wrote the American author Anthony J D’Angelo. Looking after our elderly should be a priority for any government, but for too long the issue has been kicked into the long grass. 

The funding of adult social care is unquestionably one of the most pressing challenges of the next few decades. In this country, there are now one million more people aged over 65 since 2010. There will be two million more people over 75 years old in the next decade alone. There will be a third more people aged over 85 in 2024 than there were in 2014. 

We cannot expect our children and our grandchildren, some of whom are already saddled with student debt and unable to buy a home of their own, to carry the costs of the older generation out of their pay packets. Nor can we expect already stretched local authorities to carry the significant proportion of the spending. 

Additionally, if we don’t tackle the decade-long stagnation in real wages, many more care workers will leave the profession, a situation which has been exacerbated further by Brexit. 

It was in that spirit that a cross-party group of MPs including myself, Norman Lamb, Caroline Flint and Sarah Wollaston went to see Theresa May before the recent election. All of us had been beavering away trying to force the issue further up the agenda by calling for debates and asking questions. We all agreed we wanted to work together to come up with a sustainable proposal for long-term care for the elderly.

The prime minster listened attentively and indicated she had recruited someone at No 10 to look at this. While this fell short of what we were seeking, we were not too disheartened and thought the door had been left ajar, if not open. The next anyone heard about any of this (including, I am given to understand, the cabinet) was when the Conservative party manifesto came out. As we now know, it raised more questions than it answered and, fatally, made no mention of the cap recommended by Andrew Dilnot in his 2011 report. 

A cap is important because, without it, the potential exposure of risk to insurers is unlimited and unattractive. Once a maximum liability is in place, actuaries can do the sums and price policies aimed at middle-aged customers who want to guarantee that they are well looked after in their old age and to protect their family assets in return for a monthly premium, thereby freeing up much-needed funds for those unable to make provision. 

Although our manifesto proposals had some valid arguments, they had not been tested or even discussed. And to my confused and alarmed elderly constituents it seemed like a political Exocet aimed straight at them. It had a devastating impact on our election campaigning.

So where are we now? As I said in my Queen’s speech contribution, the only mention of social care was that we were to “bring forward proposals for consultation”. But where were the details on the promised green paper or when it was to be published?

In my own county of Devon, the challenge of social care is particularly daunting. The number of over-65s in Devon will increase from 195,000 to 264,400 by 2030, an increase of 35.5%, putting a massive strain on local services and the local economy. 

So, in my Queen’s speech contribution I made two offers to the government; the first that they should look upon Devon as a ‘guinea pig’ to see how best to deal with this challenge long-term. At present, 17% of the UK population is over 65, compared to 24% of the Devon population. In other words, with those ageing demographics, the rest of England will look like Budleigh Salterton (one of my constituency towns) by 2050. Get it right in Devon and you then have the template to roll out nationally. 

My second offer was to help bring back together our cross-party group to help the government work through all this. Looking after the elderly is our duty and should not be a political football. We should take Andrew Dilnot’s “Fairer Care Funding” report off the shelf, dust it down and get to work. Perhaps then the “best will yet to be” for those entering their twilight years. And, as politicians, we will have discharged our moral responsibility towards them.   


Sir Hugo Swire is Conservative MP for East Devon

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