November 27, 2012

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One of the biggest challenges we face as a society and a country is meeting the needs of our ageing population. 

Facing up to this challenge is crucial.

It’s crucial for the growing number of older and disabled people who deserve to have the best possible life, no matter where they live or what their income.

It’s crucial to millions of families – on low and middle incomes - who want to help care for their elderly relatives but need support to do so.

And it’s crucial for our economy too.

Last year the independent Office for Budget Responsibility published its first ‘Fiscal Sustainability Report’.

The report made it crystal clear that the primary pressure on the public finances is our ageing population, and that without major changes - to pensions, the NHS and social care – the long term growth of our economy and the sustainability of our public finances could be put at risk.

Ensuring we have a better, fairer, more sustainable system of care is essential to meeting the needs of our ageing population is at the top of Labour’s agenda.

As a party and as a country it is clear that the we face a massive challenge.

Let’s be clear: local council budgets for adult social care have been under pressure for many years, well before the current financial crisis began.

That’s why Labour put forward bold plans to reform care and support, including how it is funded, at the last general election.

But we didn’t win the election.

And now this Government’s determination to focus on austerity at the expense of growth, and their huge cuts to local council budgets, have pushed an already pressurised care system to breaking point.

Nationally, adult social care makes up around 40% of local council budgets and is their biggest discretionary spend. So when council budgets are cut by a third or in Sefton’s case, 40%, services for older and disabled people inevitably suffer. One of the reasons for this is that the most vulnerable in our society are often those least able to speak up for themselves.

The Government says they’ve put more money into social care. But the money wasn’t ring-fenced. And the result – according to figures from their own Department for Communities and Local Government – is that more than £1 billion has been cut from local council budgets for older people’s care since the Coalition came to power.

Ninety per cent of residential and nursing home care, and 84 per cent of publicly funded home care, is delivered by the independent sector. The independent sector faces big challenges.

As local authority budgets are squeezed, councils are raising their eligibility thresholds, so 8 out of 10 councils now only provide services for those with substantial or critical needs.

One of the consequences is that many older people who go into residential care now are much frailer than before.

According to one residential care provider in Oxford, whilst a couple of years ago the average length of stay for their residents was two years, this has now dropped to only nine months.

Yet despite the fact that older people who require care have higher needs, and inflation is running at 3% to 4%, most councils are freezing and in some cases reducing the price they pay for residential care. There are also huge variations in the fees councils pay in different parts of the country.

Many providers say that the funding they get simply doesn’t meet the costs of providing good standards of care.

As a result, self-funders are increasingly having to subsidise council funded residents, and top-up payments are growing too.

Some providers of both residential and home care say they won’t be able to rely on local authority funding in future.

I am extremely concerned this will drive further inequalities in the system - as some providers reduce services to council funded users and others opt out of providing council funded care altogether. This will mean only those people with their own money will be able to afford more than the most basic care. It is essential that all parties agree how care is funded. It is also essential that the government makes sure that care is funded as soon as possible. Otherwise, many vulnerable elderly and disabled people will suffer.