NHS and Social Care Commission

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 28th January 2016.

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Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Shadow Secretary of State for Health 4:04 pm, 28th January 2016

It is a pleasure to follow Dr Whitford, and I congratulate Norman Lamb on securing the debate today. I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been an important and well-informed one.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the seriousness of the financial challenge facing our health and care system. They are right to do so. Many hon. Members have also been right to say that we need a big, honest national debate about what excellent care services look like and how we might pay for them. I have been the shadow Secretary of State for Health now for just four months. In that time, it has become obvious to me that the NHS and care system is facing unprecedented challenges—huge hospital deficits, care home providers on the brink of failure, older people in hospital because they cannot get the support that they need at home, more critically ill people waiting longer than ever before for ambulances and large chunks of the workforce so demoralised that they want to up sticks and leave for the southern hemisphere.

For many people who use the NHS, this picture may sound unfamiliar. For the majority, the NHS still provides excellent care and it is important to recognise that and to thank the thousands of dedicated staff who ensure that that happens. But the system fails many others, and the risk is that it starts to fail more and more people as time goes on.

When I was asked to do this job, I knew that the NHS and care system was under pressure. I knew that demographic change and the march of technology, both in and of themselves good things, were placing demands on a system designed for a different century. As a constituency MP, I have visited isolated older people, many feeling like prisoners in their own home, surviving with the help of a meagre care package or the support of family and friends if they are lucky. As a local authority councillor, I saw the soaring demand for adult social care, and the woefully inadequate budget to deal with it. Demand is growing because our population is ageing but also because advances in medicine enable babies who previously might not have survived to live not only into childhood but into adulthood.

On a personal level, I knew that in my own family, my grandmother had spent the last few years of her life in and out of hospital on an almost weekly basis, driven as much by crises of loneliness as by a deterioration of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I knew that my other nan was forced to sell her home to pay for her care when she developed vascular dementia, meaning that all but £23,000 of her £140,000 estate disappeared. All these things I knew before I became the shadow Secretary of State, but it was only when I visited hospital after hospital up and down the country in the past few months that my eyes were really been opened.

The image of frail, elderly people, perched alone on beds in emergency admissions units or in rehabilitation wards is the abiding picture that stays with me following my first four months in this job. It made me feel uncomfortable. As a childless 40-year-old woman, I asked myself whether that would be me in 50 years. Was it the best place to be? Was it the best we as a country could do? The image may have been uncomfortable, but the numbers say it all. One in four hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia. Half of all people admitted to hospital are aged over 65. More than 300,000 people aged over 90 arrive at A&E by ambulance every year.

When we get older—and it will come to all of us, hopefully—hospital will sometimes be necessary, but it should not become the norm. I know that we have to address this problem. The system needs to be redesigned so that it gets the right sort of support to people at the right time and in the right place to prevent problems from escalating.

We have to be honest, however, about the fact that this involves a price tag. While savings can still be made and there will be ways to make the system more efficient and less wasteful, there are simple underlying pressures that cannot be wished away. With every day that goes by, more older people are living with increasingly complex and often multiple conditions. Some say that family members need to step up and care for elderly relatives, but others say that that is unrealistic. New drugs and treatments also become available every day, yet at not insignificant cost. It might be tempting to brush these uncomfortable truths under the carpet, but we cannot, and we would fail generations to come if we were to do so.

That brings me on to the proposal that we are debating: the establishment of an independent, non-partisan commission to determine what a long-term financial settlement for the NHS and social care system might look like. I understand the superficial attraction of the proposal. I have been stopped on the street and in the gym by people I have never met who say, “Why can’t the politics be put to one side when it comes to the NHS?” I understand that sentiment, as politicians are not always the most popular bunch and we are too often seen to be advancing our own parties’ interests rather than those of the public. However, the way in which we fund elderly care is the most deeply political question that our country faces in the next decade, and it is political because it is about who pays and who benefits.

While the NHS is a universal, taxpayer-funded system that is free at the point of use, social care provision is a mixed bag. Those with money pay for care themselves, while those without rely on councils to provide what support they can. There has been a “make do and mend” approach to social care in recent times, but our changing population means that that is no longer an option.

I spoke earlier about my nan, a woman of limited means who experienced catastrophic care costs because she developed dementia. My family is not a rich family, but we are not a poor family either—we are like many families up and down the country. When I was growing up, my dad decided to take us on a two-week holiday to Spain each year instead of paying into a pension. He has never bought a brand-new car in his life, but he never let his children go without either. The costs of care faced by my nan and my family fell randomly. Is it right that a woman of limited means who dies of dementia at the age of 85 passes nothing meaningful on to her family when a wealthy man who dies of a heart attack at the age of 60 does? What about those who plan their financial futures having invested in expensive tax advice to avoid the costs of care? These are deeply political questions.

If the NHS and care system are to be adequately funded in the future, the truth is that a political party needs to be elected to government having stood on a manifesto that sets out honestly and clearly how we pay for elderly care, and how we fairly and transparently manage the rising costs of new treatments, drugs and technology. No matter how well researched, intentioned or reasoned an independent commission’s recommendations may be, someone at some point will have to take a tough decision.

Given the cross-party work that has been done in this area in the past, I think that I can be forgiven for being cautious. Let us take the discussions that took place between by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham, and the then Conservative and Liberal Democrat Opposition prior to the 2010 election. Just weeks before the election, the Conservatives pulled the plug on those talks, and accusations of “death taxes” were suddenly being hurled around. So much for a grown-up debate to answer the difficult questions. Take also the attempt at cross-party agreement in the previous Parliament which led to some of the Dilnot proposals on capping the costs of care. Those proposals were in the Conservative party’s manifesto, but were swiftly kicked into the long grass just weeks after the election.

I am not sure that attempts to take the politics out of inherently political decisions have worked. Even in the case of something straightforward—a new runway, for example—an independent commission has not exactly led to consensus on how to proceed. It has just led to more delay. As the well-respected Nuffield Trust has said, “Experience shows that independent commissions into difficult issues can have little impact if their recommendations do not line up with political, local or financial circumstances.”

How we pay for elderly care is one of the most difficult decisions facing our generation. It will require political leadership. A political party needs to own the solutions and be determined to make the case for them. I am not ashamed to say that I want the Labour party to lead that debate. I want us to build on some of the excellent work that has already been done in this area, in particular the work of Kate Barker and the King’s Fund. I want the Labour party to spend time talking to people up and down the country about the kind of health and care service they want to see, and to have a frank and honest discussion about what some of the different options to pay for that service might be.

I must be honest, though, and say that I think it was a profoundly political decision in the previous Parliament to cut the amount of money available to councils to pay for adult social care. I say gently to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk that he stood at the Government Dispatch Box and defended the cuts that his Government were making to social care. He dismissed many of warnings that my hon. Friend Liz Kendall was making when she was the shadow Care Minister about delayed discharges, cuts to home care, and reductions in other vital services, such as meals on wheels and home adaptions. It is neither realistic nor right to pretend that we do not have fundamental differences on this issue. Any attempt at finding consensus must begin with an acknowledgement of the damage done to social care over the past five years.