Putting social care on a sustainable financial footing would be a fitting tribute to some of our country's unsung heroes, and would help to ensure social care provides the quality of care that everyone deserves, argues John Baron MP

After a difficult three months, it is very welcome to hear from the Prime Minister that from 4th July Britain will be taking considerable steps to ease the lockdown. The coronavirus has not gone away, and we will all have to continue to be vigilant and obey the important social distancing measures, as well as complying with the 'track and trace' teams so that we can get on with what is beginning to resemble a return to normal life.

The pandemic has led to even greater public appreciation for our healthcare system, and of the excellent care provided by NHS professionals, whose diligence has no doubt saved many lives and whose attention to detail has identified one of the first drugs in the world to have a real impact on survival for the sickest coronavirus patients.

The other cadre of workers who have come under fresh focus is the sector which has been long been characterised as the Cinderella of healthcare ? social care. This goes back to the founding moment of the National Health Service, when the distinction was drawn between health care on the one hand, free at the point of use, and social care on the other, towards which most people had to make a contribution.

Whilst the National Health Service has gone from strength to strength, with massively increased budgets over the decades and a prominent place at the centre of our national life ? it even featured in its own section at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics ? the same has not been true of social care. There may be a number of reasons for this, but it is probably related to the fact that while everyone is used to going to see their GP or attending hospital appointments, people generally only come across the social care system if their elderly relatives reach an age or condition where they are not able to live as independently as before.

Yet social care is a nettle which must be grasped, not least because it is estimated that the number of people aged over 85 in the UK is expected to double by 2030. At the same time, families are becoming more spread out and atomised, meaning that the usual networks of support are not always there to the same extent as before.

Multiple attempts to address these problems have been made over the decades, with the main focus on trying to find a fair balance between state and private contributions towards the cost of care, and one which respected fairness between the generations. It is 23 years since Tony Blair said as Prime Minister, 'I don't want our children brought up in a country where the only way pensioners can get long-term care is by selling their home'.

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Since Tony Blair addressed the Labour Party Conference in 1997 with these words, fresh from his landslide victory, there has been a Royal Commission into this issue, along with the Wanless Report, the Dilnot Commission and 12 other green and white papers. Subsequent discussions are centring around the type of proposals submitted by the Dilnot Commission, which suggested a more generous means test for free care along with a lifetime cap on how much individuals would have to contribute.

The difficult deliberations surrounding this quickly become emotive, as they tend to strike a chord with voters who fear their life savings might run out in their lifetime, requiring them to sell their home, and that they consequently might not be able to pass on their inheritance to the next generation. These fears, which were unfairly amplified by political opponents, were at the heart of the criticism and generally bad reception to the Conservative proposals to reform social care funding at the 2017 General Election.

Memories of that election campaign are still raw for those of us who were Conservative candidates or activists. A key problem was that there had been very little done in terms of informing the public in advance as to what the existing care funding situation was, and therefore why what the Conservatives were offering was an improvement. Parliamentarians were also unaware of the specific proposals until they were published in the manifesto ? it would have been better to have examined the specifics as part of a white paper.

In my experience, when people baulked at being 'cleaned out' to their last £100,000 in assets (including their homes), they were often unaware that the existing measures could already 'clean them out' to their last £23,250. The inability for Conservatives to give a figure for the level of a cap allowed people's worst imaginations to play out, not helped by opponents opportunistically ? and unfairly ? labelling the proposals a 'dementia tax'. It was certainly odd to hear hard-left voices from Labour defending the rights of people to inherit unearned income and assets.

Right at the beginning of his premiership the Prime Minister made an excellent commitment to solving social care funding once and for all, and the Conservatives committed in the election manifesto to starting cross-party talks with this aim. These began in March, but it would be understandable if the Government's efforts and attention had been directed elsewhere during this pandemic. As less of the Government's bandwidth is taken by the coronavirus, I would urge the Prime Minister to inject new impetus into these discussions at the earliest opportunity.

One other important aspect of fixing social care is ensuring that care workers are better paid. These people do an excellent and important job, yet all too often, much like the sector they work in, they are overshadowed by their more visible counterparts in the NHS. The coronavirus outbreak has reminded us that our society is often dependent on the contribution of key workers who receive relatively little remuneration for their efforts.

Putting social care on a sustainable financial footing should allow care homes to be more generous in their pay. The Left will invariably argue for guaranteed minimum salaries for key workers, but this would increase costs for care homes as well as being an unwanted Government interference.

A thoroughly Conservative way of increasing the pay packets of care staff would be to increase their tax-free Personal Allowance, at least while the social care system is put on a sounder footing, enabling them to keep more of their pay at no extra cost to their employers. I have written to the Chancellor with this suggestion in the hope he will bear it in mind in his deliberations over his forthcoming measures. It would be a fitting tribute to some of our country's unsung heroes.

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