Speaking out for Care – The second reading

Guest post by Ben Parker, Parliamentary Assistant at Scope.

Monday marked a significant day as the Care Bill entered the House of Commons to be debated by MPs for the first time. With the Government choosing to have the Second Reading in the last week of Parliamentary business before the Christmas Recess, and falling the day after Nelson Mandela’s funeral, there were understandable concerns that the Bill wouldn’t receive the political attention it deserved.

For disabled people the Bill has huge importance. It marks the first move towards building a preventative and sustainable social care system after years of political neglect and chronic underfunding.

The opening exchanges between Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt and Shadow Secretary Andy Burnham were fiery; a reminder of the political tensions between the two parties before the last election and fuelled by strong feelings on either side of the Chamber around the Care Bill. Speaker John Bercow was forced to interject at length in an attempt to maintain order as Hunt and opposition backbenchers traded verbal blows.

It was disappointing that the Secretary of State’s opening remarks failed to recognise disabled people’s role in the debate. Instead he focused on the NHS, the bolstering of the role of the Care Quality Commission in safeguarding health services and in particular, the administration of enforced service changes at Lewisham Hospital.

But there was also encouragement – Scope’s Britain Cares campaign has focused on addressing the eligibility threshold for social care and ensuring that all disabled people who need access to the care system to live independently can do so. Without this, the Government’s welcome ambitions for the Care Bill risk not being realised. The media also picked up on the story, with Sky News yesterday highlighting eligibility with the powerful real-terms implications for disabled people going without care.

This campaigning has had evident impact. Several backbenchers including David Ward (Lib Dem – Bradford East) and Anne McGuire (Labour – Stirling) chose to focus on this issue, McGuire arguing that if “social care is to mean anything to the lives of the disabled, it should be underpinned by a real recognition of the importance of an independent life.”

John McDonnell (Labour – Hayes and Harlington), Emma Lewell-Buck (Labour – South Shields) and Bill Esterson (Labour – Sefton Central) took the opportunity to highlight the statistics published by the Personal Social Services Unit at the London School of Economics, emphasising that the Government spending on social care has not kept pace with demographic change. McDonnell summarised: “those with moderate needs, which are still significant and should be within the system, are being ignored completely. We need to address this matter with some seriousness now and try to reach some all-party agreement on the way forward.”

The former Communities and Local Government Minister Hazel Blears outlined that failing to address eligibility had implications for the ambition of a preventative care system. “If we are talking about the well-being duty and the duty to prevent, reduce and delay somebody’s need for care, how can we say that we are going to support only people with substantial and critical needs?”

The backbench Conservative MP for Swindon South, Robert Buckland, made a measured and eloquent case in agreement, calling on the Government to ensure that “local authorities’ understanding of prevention is wide ranging and includes the very types of low-level support that can make this prevention aspiration a reality.”

In response, the Minister of State for Care Norman Lamb was at pains to point out that Local Authorities could still choose to set their thresholds at lower levels, although as Burnham countered, legislating for only critical and substantial needs sends a clear political message. This freedom of choice would also seem to run contrary to the Minister’s desire for a simplified ‘in-or-out’ care system designed to eradicate the current post-code lottery of care provision.

The Government’s decision to bring the £3.8bn health and social care integration funding under the banner of the ‘Better Care Fund’ also appears to be an acknowledgement of the increasing political pressure around the importance of lower-level care.

We will continue to watch closely for the amendments at the Committee Stage of the Care Bill. With your help as part of the Britain Cares campaign, we will continue to fight to make the legislative reforms as strong as possible and to ensure that all disabled people who need care can access it and live independent lives.