The economic crisis that engulfed the developed world in 2008 was not, of course, caused by the number of people on disability living allowance. Indeed, the proportion of the population on out-of-work benefits fell between 1997 and the beginning of the crisis. Although reform is needed, that point gives the lie to the suggestion that the scale of the situation required us to introduce the kind of measures that are causing such distress and grievance to hundreds and thousands of people with disabilities throughout the country, and leading to such a number of appeals. That is evidenced by the terrible e-mail that emerged from the Department for Work and Pensions today.
Rather than discussing benefits, I want to talk about the social care agenda because, unlike the situation with working-age benefits, we face an emerging crisis in that area. Over two years, the Government have failed to make progress on a way forward on paying for social care, which would be of value to those who need that care and their families who worry about them. In addition, several events that are unfolding, especially in local government, are undermining the agenda.
We have heard from the Government about scaremongering, but nothing can compare with the advertising campaign that ran in the preamble to the general election that featured gravestones alongside a warning about the “death tax” that Labour would apply to fund a social care programme. If there was ever an example of an inability to hold a constructive debate about such a major challenge facing our country, that was it.
The costs of care have been increasing due to a rise in the numbers of the elderly and people with disabilities, as a result of progressive and thankful improvements in medical science. Those costs will double from £14.5 billion today to £27 billion by 2030, and there will a 100% increase in the number of people who have to pay for their own care.
Changes are taking place in the national health service. A consultation will shortly be held in my NHS region on the closure of five out of nine accident and emergency units as part of a reform to the health service that is designed to move people away from hospitals and into social care in their communities. In itself, that is a positive development, but only if that social care is available and affordable, and we are seeing that the opposite is the case.
“What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to…think again.”
“If councils share back-office services, join forces to get better value from their buying power, cut out excessive chief executive pay, and root out overspending and waste, they can protect key front-line services.”—[Hansard, 28 February 2011; Vol. 524, c. 13.]
I will leave it to the House to decide whether there has been a complete lack of understanding on the part of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, or whether this is mendacity, but we know that there has been a £1 billion cut from social care in local government. Councils are front-loading a 28% cut in Government support and producing graphs of doom showing that care costs will swallow up so much of local government’s agenda in the next 15 years that councils will be able to provide only care and waste collection services.
A quarter of Westminster’s £52 million savings programme has come from adult and social care. Some 3,000 older and disabled people have lost care, while £15 million has gone by reducing meals for older people and day care for vulnerable people by 50%. An adult social care survey ranked my local authority as one of the worst in the country. Mr Ash Naghani, one of my constituents, told a local newspaper:
“The attitude before last year was how my council could help you to become more independent and contribute to society…since last year, it’s been as if I’m not important any more. All they are talking about is ways to cut down my care package to see how much money they can save.”
In addition to the cuts in social care, the removal of the taxi card from everyone above a benefit threshold has taken away independence from elderly and disabled people who cannot use public transport. Many of them have pointed out that their savings from a frozen council tax are heavily outweighed by the amount they must spend on travelling now that they are without their taxi card.
Times are tough and the pressures of an ageing population are inescapable. Not all needs will be met, but we must avoid denying what is going on. The Government, however, continue to be in denial about the impact of local government cuts on front-line services, in denial about the reality of more intensive means-testing, and in denial about the extent to which the drip, drip of scepticism about the reality of disability, especially invisible disability, is poisoning the atmosphere, and even feeding into hate crime and abuse.