Social care crisis: MPs put May under pressure to act fast
Select committee chairs send frank letter to prime minister as fears grow that Brexit could overshadow ‘immense challenge’.
This article titled “Social care crisis: MPs put May under pressure to act fast” was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, and Peter Walker Political correspondent, for The Guardian on Friday 6th January 2017 00.01 UTC
Theresa May has come under renewed pressure to take urgent action to tackle the crisis in social care, amid growing fears in Westminster that the complex task of preparing for Brexit talks is crowding out domestic policy.
The chairs of three of the most influential Commons select committees have written to the prime minister, urging her to seek a rapid cross-party consensus on the “immense challenge” of paying for health and social care in the future.
Coming as the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, prepares to meet union leaders in a bid to prevent the latest in a series of rail strikes, and as health experts warn of a looming winter crisis in the NHS, the strongly worded call underlines the sense that May’s honeymoon in No 10 is over.
The letter – sent jointly by the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, of the health committee, the Labour MP Meg Hillier, of the public accounts committee, and Clive Betts, also a Labour MP, of the communities and local government committee – underscores fears that pressing issues on the home front are being set aside.
“We are calling for a new political consensus to take this forward,” the letter reads. “This needs to be done swiftly so that agreement can be reflected in the next spending round.”
The MPs say any review should cover both the health and social care systems, warning that separation of the two is “creating difficulties for individuals and avoidable barriers and inefficiencies”.
May was accused of failing to grasp the scale of the challenge, after the chancellor, Philip Hammond, offered no extra money for social care in his autumn statement in November. No 10 then hastily announced that local authorities would be able to bring forward increases in council tax to meet short-term needs.
The prime minister suggested at the time that she would seek a longer-term answer, to put social care on a sustainable footing, but has so far said nothing about how she will do so.
But ministers and civil servants are still waking up to the magnitude of the Brexit task. The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s representative in Brussels, this week reinforced growing concerns about whether the government is fully prepared for what lies ahead.
A damning editorial in the right-leaning Economist news magazine, which dubbed the prime minister “Theresa Maybe” and compared her to former PM Gordon Brown, set tongues wagging among MPs.
Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “Brexit is going to overwhelm every government department and we won’t be able to get on with anything else. The intellectual energy will go into Brexit, the most ambitious civil servants will want to be in the Brexit departments; it will just be the focus of everything.”
He claimed May was not “philosophically or intellectually” interested in social issues such as elderly care.
The letter from the heads of the three select committees urges May to organise a review, “which should begin as soon as possible” and involve all major parties, saying that the scale of the challenge means social care will be an issue for whichever party is in power over the coming decades.
The letter concludes: “In short, the problem is widely recognised – we now need political agreement so that a solution for the long term can be found. For our part we shall do what we can to contribute to a consensus. We look forward to hearing from you.”
Chris Ham, chief executive of health thinktank The King’s Fund, said a new plan for health and social care was “long overdue”.
“For too long there has been a lack of political leadership on these issues,” he added. “We agree with the committee chairs that a political consensus that puts health and social care funding on a sustainable footing is sorely needed. Without a consensus, patients and people in need will suffer.”
The letter was also backed by Izzi Seccombe, who leads on the issue for the Local Government Association.
“Following last month’s local government finance settlement, we said there needed to be an urgent and fundamental review of social care before the spring budget, and we are pleased the select committees back this,” she said.
A government spokeswoman said more had been done under May to integrate health and social care than ever before.
“We recognise the pressures of an ageing population, which is why we recently announced almost £900m of additional funding for adult social care over the next two years,” she said.
“But, as the prime minister has made clear, this is not solely about money. That is why we are working to find a long-term, sustainable solution which helps local authorities learn from each other to raise standards across the whole system.”
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