Political Promise

Time for a National Care Service

In Jonny Roberts on June 13, 2011 at 7:00 am

The disaster of Southern Cross and an abused teen’s letter to David Cameron have highlighted a new for a radical alternative. Jonny Roberts says now is the time for a National Care Service.

This week No.10 has not had a fun time on care for the more vulnerable. It has been warned of mass suicide by those with mental health problems being forced back into work due to the failings of the Work Capability Assessment, its support for ever more privatisation of public services has been under the microscope following the market failure of Southern Cross care for elderly, Panorama highlighted the terrible way the old and mentally frail are treated in some of the UK’s privately-run care facilities and to top it off a 16-year old victim of domestic abuse, passed from foster parent to foster parent no fewer than 15 times, writes to David Cameron this weekend to ask him to stop the closure of hundreds of care homes for vulnerable children across England, as a result of the Coalition strategy of front-loading cuts to local council budgets. If there was ever a time for a strong Labour voice it was now.

Even as a sympathiser for Labour’s policy review process, arguing in favour of utilising this valuable time 4 years away from a general election to take stock after 13-years of government, there are no excuses this time. These situations are of the present, issues the Government, and by default its Opposition, must deal with here and now. The issues are so horrific – pain inflicted by a lack of regulation, market failure and cuts that Ed Balls, rightly, reminds us like a broken record, are ‘too far, too fast’. Reaching out to the squeezed middle is fine and Ivan Lewis is right that too often Labour is seen as a ‘party for benefit claimants’ but to let the Government off the hook here is to not only miss a political opportunity but a dereliction of its duty as an opposition and as a party which must always stand for supporting the weak and vulnerable in our society. The good news for Labour is that for all its policy reviewing, their 2010 manifesto already holds a powerful answer to these problems, a genuine alternative to a Government that doesn’t seem to have a clue – a National Care Service.

Regular readers will know this is a subject which I bleat on about a lot, but the events of this week necessitate I do so once more. For years quality of care for the elderly and for vulnerable children has too often depended on where you live, loathe as I am to use a Daily Mail expression, it is a ‘postcode lottery’. The drastic cuts to local authority budgets, being forced through by the odious Eric Pickles are compounded by Pickles’ insistence on weekly bin collections and pot-hole filling. Councils are actually being told by central Government (the allegedly pro-localism Government no-less) to use their drastically reduced budgets on filling pot-holes, taking down road signs and reinstating regular bin collections, all good things in their own right and certainly popular with the majority of electors, but they fade in importance with the need to provide proper (the crucial word here) care for the most vulnerable in a community. Here democracy has a problem, people want their local councillors to make sure the roads are in good condition, their bins are picked up regularly and their Council Tax is low. That is not to suggest the British electorate are self-centred and uncaring, far from it – people also care passionately about the most vulnerable but these are not the things that directly affect the majority of them on a daily basis, they are out of sight, out of mind in a society of long-hours working and commuting. Horrific stories as we’ve seen this week will push them into the consciousness for a week or so but its not enough when come election time councillors try to sweep up votes from an apathetic electorate who decry the lack of visible change to their lives provided by any party. In this political climate it’s the big visible gestures that become priority for politicians who seek to keep or win a seat, it takes a brave or foolish man to run on a ‘improve care for vulnerable children, take over failing private care homes’ ticket.

A National Care Service would see government taking back the responsibility of providing care homes for children who have been abused, providing care for the elderly and indeed other types of care currently the responsibility of local authorities such as a shelter for the homeless. This national service could take over Southern Cross homes to ensure safe and free (paid for via a form of taxation or alternatively not free but via affordable co-payments) elderly care for all who need it. As proposed by Labour at the last election it would also cover the provision of care in the home which is often more humane and sometimes more affordable than care homes. I’m not arguing for the complete end of private provision, where there is a demand for more luxurious provision and quality, trusted providers deliver such a service it should absolutely be allowed to thrive and in fact this national service would, like the NHS, work best when working with the third and private sectors to deliver care but under national co-ordination which could take advantage of economies of scale as well as guaranteeing a minimum level of care to those who need it most wherever they happen to reside within England.

The National Care Service would also come under the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health (renaming Sec of State for Health and Social Care would be a wise move) to ensure the NHS and NCS collaborate to avoid the disgusting passing of the buck (bed-blocking) between local councils and the NHS and vice-versa. A National Care Service would also, ironically, be more democratically accountable, at the moment cuts (or dramatic increases for that matter!) to care services can go almost unnoticed by local electorates due to the lack of local paper readership or even coverage in the first place, a national approach means cuts to care will be more easily identifiable and therefore challenged.

A National Care Service could be our national commitment as a modern society that the most vulnerable must never be abandoned. I fear the Tories and Liberal Democrats have no appetite for such an undertaking and Labour may not rise to the occasion either. Another sad week for the elderly, the abused and the unfortunate of 21st century Britain.

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