Confusion reigns as to what the government is planning on social care reform. But one thing is clear after the Queen's Speech - funding changes are off the agenda
The Queen’s Speech was a make or break moment for social care reform. If there had been no mention of social care at all, it would have confirmed what many feared: that even after all of the momentum created by Andrew Dilnot’s Funding Commission report in August 2011 - and the concerted efforts of the Care in Crisis and Care Can’t Wait campaigns - the government had decided to draw back at the last moment and put social care reform firmly back in the 'too difficult' box.
So when the Queen uttered the words, 'A draft bill will be published to modernise adult care and support in England', if you listened very carefully, you would have heard an excited intake of breath from disability, older people's and carers’ charities, as well as care providers and local authority commissioners across the country. But this was soon followed by confusion – what’s a draft bill?
Draft bills – somewhere between a white paper and a bill – have become more frequent in recent years, as they allow for a greater amount of consultation and debate in select committees before going through the Commons. And after the traumatic experience the government had with the Health and Social Care Bill, who could blame them for being more cautious this time round and start out with a draft?
But on this front, the government has made a fundamental misjudgement. The reforms presented in the controversial and broadly unpopular Health and Social Care Bill were a world away from what is destined for inclusion in the draft Social Care Bill, which seems to cover an extension of personalisation, and a simplification of current social care law by implementing the recommendations of the Law Commission. The Law Commission’s report on social care law, which proposed sweeping away all the various ad hoc bits of legislation and replacing it with a single consistent law, was universally welcomed and supported by the sector when it was published last summer.
This makes the draft bill so uncontroversial and potentially popular, that one wonders why the government feels it necessary to take the extra precaution of producing it in draft form first.
Taking this step also creates a somewhat confusing situation this summer. A social care white paper is due imminently, so the draft bill may come out perhaps at the same time if not shortly after. Some are concerned that the white paper consultation will be a pointless exercise if the draft bill already sets out what is going to be in legislation. But others have reasoned that while the draft bill will provide the nitty gritty of things requiring legislative change, the white paper will be more visionary.
But at this point, the obvious question arises: if the government is putting through a Social Care Bill, albeit in draft form, in this parliamentary term, what happens to all of the visionary (and important) elements of the White Paper that require legislation? Will there be two care bills in two years? It seems unlikely.
And then we come to the elephant in the room. Social care funding. There is not a single mention of this in the draft bill outline, and it will not be featured in the White Paper – the government opting instead for a ‘progress report’ on funding to be issued alongside the White Paper. Yet this is the one central issue of social care reform which cannot wait, and was the focus of an open letter to the prime minister on the eve of the Queen’s Speech, sent from an unprecedented coalition of organisations in the charitable, statutory and private sectors.
When signatures from BUPA and the Association of British Insurers are jostling on the page with the Fabian Society and UNISON, along with every disability and older people’s charity you could possibly name, you know it’s an issue everyone is desperate for the government to resolve.
The Queen’s Speech was, therefore, disappointing and worrying in equal measure. Not just because the draft bill will be the only legislation we see on social care this year, with funding firmly off the table. But because the government’s draft bill approach suggests there will be extra caution and delay, even with broadly popular and uncontroversial reforms. With this in mind, the chances that the government will countenance anything as radical as a new funding settlement before the next election are slim to say the least. Funding seems to be not just off the table, but out of the door.