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My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my registered interests as a councillor and a vice-chair of the Local Government Association. I too want to raise the issue of social care.
This is what happened in the town where I live just before Christmas. There was an elderly couple in their 90s, well known in the community, and sadly the woman had developed dementia and was in need of considerable care and support. This care was provided by visits from social care and by her husband, who was himself frail. Sadly, he too became a victim of dementia. There was then what is described as a full care package, but for long periods of the day this increasingly vulnerable couple was regarded as being independent. One afternoon, the husband wandered out of the house in a confused state. At the next social care visit, the discovery was made that he had gone. It was dark. The police response was amazing; local people turned out to search. The next morning he was found in a side street, dead—a death without dignity, a social care tragedy.
I recount this because it amply illustrates the scandalous omission in this gracious Speech. In the past 20 years, there have been numerous commissions, reports and independent reviews on social care in England. We are still waiting for the Green Paper promised three years ago. The plan now is for more delay when what is needed is urgent action. Will the Minister at the very least assure the House that the Government will bring forward a Green Paper on the future funding of social care as a starting point for development of consensus on what has become a care service in crisis? For once, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.
The Government’s response to this desperate funding shortage for social care is to pile an increasing burden on to council tax payers via a 2% precept specifically for social care, on top of the annual tax increase. This provides additional funding along with a welcome promise of £1 billion a year, but that is to be shared by adult and children’s services, and we know that the funding gap for both services will be £7 billion in five years’ time, so this extra funding will fail to bridge the gap.
That brings me on to funding for local government as a whole. It is also at a critical stage, and business rates provide a large part of the funding. While the larger rebates in business rates proposed for retailers and others are very welcome, will that mean an equivalent reduction in income for local government? If that is the case, the already critical state of local funding will become even more perilous. Will the Minister provide local government with an assurance that it will be compensated in full for loss of business rate income?
The Government’s strategy for local government appears to be to starve it of funds but to fail to make provision to enable local government to develop other sources of income. The results are there for all to experience: potholed roads; fly-tipping on the increase; youth services cut to the bone or cut altogether; libraries closed; and vulnerable people not adequately cared for. Will the Minister be able to share with us the Government’s plans for the future funding of local government?
Finally, I remain concerned that the Government are gradually removing the “local” from local government by creating more large unitary authorities. It would be prudent of them to recall that one of the drivers of the existing national mood is that people no longer feel that they can influence decisions that directly affect their lives. The cry to “take back control” is a powerful one, and local people may well take up that call—to the discomfiture of the current Government.