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Government Shoves 'Caring Crunch' on the 'Too Difficult' Pile

Labour needs to seriously engage with and address the pervading fear that so many people live with - of ending a lifetime of contributions to our society in the silent misery of an inadequate social care system.

It's never a good idea to turn your attention away from the main game. Labour responses to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in the summer predictably sparked a media frenzy that left-of-centre people up and down the land echoed on their social media channels.

Meanwhile, the government had quietly sneaked out a devastating announcement to postpone until a month before the next general election a momentous change that was scheduled to impact on millions of people with caring responsibilities, and on those they care for.

Here's a task: Go to any playground, bus stop, or other place where women gather, and see how long it takes for the conversation to turn to looking after someone else. Three minutes max, probably.

That's because caring is a topic on everyone's minds, most of the time. Yet, reflecting the distance from the 'everyday' that some of us keep, it barely gets a look-in when the political classes gather.

In 2014 the coalition passed The Care Act. It represented a watered-down version of Andrew Dilnot's 2010 report into long-term funding of social care but outlined how care and support needs should be met, introducing for the first time a right to an assessment for anyone - including carers and self-funders - needing support.

Most of the Act came into force in April. A cap on the costs of care for individuals, and more generous support for homeowners receiving residential care, which would have expanded the reach of adult social care, was due to begin in April 2016. Then news that Ministers had shelved these until April 2020.

Why is this an issue? Supporting carers is central to improving living standards and reducing poverty. Caring is a social justice and an equality issue. Labour in government understood this, and acted on it.

And of course, although this shouldn't be a 'women's issue', it does mainly affect women, who tend to live longer on their own, and who to take on caring roles, paid or unpaid. Demand is increasing in our ever-ageing population, while provision and support varies in availability and quality.

According to the 2011 census, 11% of women in my home city of Bristol provide unpaid care. Carers UK estimates that half of working-age carers live in a household where no one is in paid work and 30 per cent of carers had seen a drop of £20,000 or more a year in household income.

But for the Tories, taking responsibility is easier avoided, so just as councils were gearing up for landmark change, the long grass beckoned and the ball was booted well and truly into it.

Determined and desperate to avoid making decisions, Ministers shoved this key issue in the 'too-difficult' pile, without a thought of the unacceptable burden it will place on carers across the country.

I sit on the Commons Public Accounts Committee. Our report into The Care Act, published early this month, concludes: "The decision to delay implementation of Phase 2 of the Care Act means that people will have to pay more for their care for longer before the cap on care costs is finally implemented" and that "carers and the people they care for may not get the services they need because of continuing reductions to local authority budgets and demand for care being so uncertain."

Whilst the Chancellor's Autumn Statement pledged to give local authorities powers to levy an additional precept on council tax to help pay for care, I see no possible way for Phase 2 to be implemented by April 2020. In a meeting with my own local council at the end of November I asked about money set previously aside for implementation. Has it gone? Would a 2 per cent precept, should it be levied by Bristol, make up for the shortfall arising from the delay in implementing the cap? The response to date suggests the issue is shrouded in mystery.

People rightly expect government to look after the security of their families, and not just from terrorism or war. Yet on this biggest of social issues, where is the political response? Where is the grassroots outcry about the social timebomb that politicians are sitting on and storing up? Not on Twitter, that's for sure.

While many in the Labour Party - and outside of it - engage in navel-gazing, grandstanding and pot-stirring, the Tories have been getting on with one thing they do extremely well: washing their hands of responsibility for taking tough decisions about an issue that affects many people now, and will bear down on nearly all of us in the years ahead.

Labour needs to seriously engage with and address the pervading fear that so many people live with - of ending a lifetime of contributions to our society in the silent misery of an inadequate social care system.

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