My Lords, this has been a thoughtful debate. At the outset, it is appropriate for me to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for his strong advocacy of the need to improve the quality and funding of social care services. The noble Lord played a critical role as part of the Dilnot commission and has made strong speeches both today and in Committee on this subject.
I am in complete agreement that high-quality social care services are crucial for the health and well-being of the population. As the Government and many others have said, major reform in adult social care is long overdue. We recognise the need for lasting reform to respond to the challenges facing social care. The recent engagement exercise, Caring for our Future: Shared Ambitions for Care and Support, conducted from September to December last year, highlighted again the scale of the challenges. We know that the quality of care is variable and can sometimes be poor, as recent high-profile failures have demonstrated. The current social care system does not support people to plan for their future care needs or maintain their well-being and independence. People often have a poor understanding of what social care is and of how to navigate the system and access the services they need.
All this is compounded by the well documented twin issues of an ageing society and financial constraint. This critical context explains why the Government have set the reform of adult social care as one their key priorities, but it also explains why social care reform merits it own focus and cannot be dealt with around the edges of discussions on another important topic. The Government are convinced that the time has come for social care reform. Given that, the question before us is not whether action should be taken to improve the quality of social care services but rather how we go about doing so.
I have given Amendment 163AA a good deal of consideration, and I am afraid that I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that I do not feel it is the appropriate mechanism to achieve what he seeks. This is because, as well as reform being needed for social care quality and funding, there is broad consensus that social care law too needs extensive reform. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, helpfully mentioned the Law Commission report on law reform, which put forward this argument last year. I wish to quote a short passage of the report, which states that,
"adult social care law has been the subject of countless piecemeal reforms ... It is of little surprise that not only does the law perplex service users and social workers, but also the judiciary".
This is the problem with the noble Lord's amendment; to accept it would be to perpetuate exactly the same confusing and piecemeal approach against which the Law Commission argues. The legal framework for care and support needs fundamental reform, not further additions to an already opaque statute.
I wish to set out briefly what I see as the appropriate course of action on social care reform. We will publish a White Paper on care and support in spring this year. I repeat that undertaking, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. We will follow this by bringing forward legislation at the earliest opportunity. The White Paper will draw on multiple sources, including the excellent work of the Law Commission and the Commission on Funding of Care and Support, for which I again express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Warner. The White Paper will respond formally to the reports of both those commissions and, of course, to the Health Select Committee report on social care.
The noble Lord has proposed that a duty be placed on the Secretary of State to secure continuous improvement in the quality of social care. The Government's proposals for embedding and safeguarding quality throughout social care will be a central theme for the White Paper. We sought views on this as part of the engagement; it highlighted that progress on quality has already been made with the publication of Transparency inOutcomes last year, which set out the Government's approach on quality, transparency and outcomes in social care. Our approach to quality improvement is aimed at responding to poor quality, enabling improvement and rewarding best-quality services to support choice.
The ideal for social care is a sector filled with great people doing great jobs who deliver high-quality care to people using social care services. As I said, we are committed to publishing the White Paper this spring and preparations are on course. The Government are taking the broadest possible approach to achieving consensus on the most crucial long-term issues. Therefore, in that context, I do not believe that the time is right for an amendment of this sort. It would pre-empt the White Paper and could leave stakeholders unclear on the broader picture of social care reform.
Moreover-I see this as the central point-we do not want to make further changes to the existing statute when more lasting legal reform is already planned in the near future. Social care is a vital public service and deserves its own focus in its own statute. Too often, debates on social care have taken place on the margins of those on another issue.