I think we are talking about a minority. We are here as politicians, but also as citizens with families and living in our communities as we discuss the policies and politics that will touch people’s lives. We are living longer, and that brings a lot of joy. We often talk about the things that are bad, but there is a lot of joy about living longer, too. It is not uncommon today to meet older people who are great-grandparents yet still active enough to look after their great-grandchildren.
The current generation of older citizens share some of the problems of previous generations. There is still poverty, and loneliness is ever more common, as those living longest outlive their lifetime companions, and as families no longer live in close-knit communities. But this generation are different from previous generations. They are less deferential—and rightly so. They expect more from life. They are not waiting for the grim reaper—they have lives to lead. Many will live 30 or more years in retirement. Not so long ago, that was half a lifetime. This generation rightly demand more. They are less likely to accept just what the state offers and lump it. If the options for their retirement, for their living arrangements, for their social care or other assistance are not to their liking, they will voice their protest. And they do so, as a generation who overwhelmingly own their own homes and want to remain independent, within four walls to call their own, for as long as possible.
Madam Deputy Speaker, this debate is timely because, less than a year on from the general election, none of the big, long-term problems facing the NHS, in particular the integration of social care and the fair funding of social care, is any closer to being resolved. We know that the NHS has always been an election issue, and we should not apologise for that. Nor should we expect that to change in the short term. We know that in the last election and the one before, the problem of funding social care, so that families do not always lose their homes to pay for long-term social care, has been an election issue. I recall in 2010 a Conservative billboard with a tombstone and the message, “Now Gordon wants £20,000 when you die. Don’t vote for Labour’s new death tax.”
I am not going to sound purer than the driven snow on this. Our party has also upped the ante on some of these issues. Yet today, one in 10 of the public can face bills of over £100,000 for social care. It makes a bill of £20,000 deferred seem a pretty attractive deal. But so nervous are Governments of this issue that this Administration have deferred the introduction of a cap on total costs from 2016 to 2020. And the cap is only on costs over £72,000. I do not want to spend time on the merits of the Government’s proposals. Suffice it to say that they are complex. They rely on local authority assessments. They create different thresholds and ceilings for contributions. Coming forward with proposals that are fair to all yet meet need, without unduly penalising those who saved for a lifetime, is not easy; it really is not, and the problems will not be solved by a five-year plan.
The challenge remains to put in place a social care funding system that is fair to people of different income levels, a system that can be embraced by all parties and, crucially, by successive Governments of different colours. For these reasons, I believe that the motion is so right today. We need an independent commission for those big long-term decisions. The same problem applies to some of the other challenges facing the NHS that colleagues have raised today. They include securing long-term funding for the NHS, particularly when successive Governments are rebalancing the Government’s income and expenditure to reduce and then eliminate the deficit and meeting the long-term challenge of demographic change, of the rising sophistication and costs of new medical technologies and of new pioneering treatments. At one and the same time, the potential for new and radical treatments is almost unlimited, but the budgets to meet them are not.
Added to that, as we look at how we devolve services in England, to which I am not opposed, we need to think about where the accountability lies, and whether there are the checks and balances to ensure that there is not only quality, but value for money. As a relatively new member of the Public Accounts Committee, I can already see that we do not have the accountability structures in place to ensure that those providing services regionally and locally are operating transparently.
When I was first elected in 1997, half the buildings used by the NHS predated its existence. Financial pressures had led to a huge backlog of investment in NHS buildings. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour Government invested record amounts in new NHS buildings—from major hospitals to modern, multi-purpose health centres, walk-in centres and GP practices. One of the ministerial jobs that I was most proud to hold was public health Minister, because one aspect of providing better buildings in the community was moving services out of hospitals and closer to people. That was especially important in areas where health inequalities were evident, because it was a way of ensuring that the people there, who are often the most vulnerable and least assertive, could see in their community the services available to them.
If we are to plan for future investment, we need consensus, because while those buildings were welcomed, not least by NHS staff and patients, their private finance initiative funding has always remained contentious. Planning for sustained investment requires a consensus that gives future Governments—and, dare I say it, this Government —the courage to take big decisions. Only a truly independent commission with real expertise and weight will begin to unpick the real costs, options and pinch points facing the NHS, and deal with the hard choices about how we meet the future of health and social care.
Such a commission can also play a role in involving staff and the public. We need a grown-up discussion outside this place—we need one inside, too—about the challenges ahead. The public and NHS staff need to be involved, so that they can be helped not only to make decisions, but to understand the responsibilities that they might have in supporting a new NHS and social care service. Such a process would represent a worthwhile investment of public money if it could achieve a social contract between the parties and the British people to provide a new secure base for the future of health and social care.
This is about change. Today’s NHS bears no comparison with that created some 60 years ago. We need to face up to change and importantly, as part of that, to help people to cope with change, because that can be frightening. We want a better and stronger NHS, but let us also have a smarter NHS. I hope that Government and Opposition Front Benchers will respond positively to the proposal.