The 'dementia tax' debacle was one of the turning points of the election campaign. 

In the Kings Fund blogs, Nicholas Timmins asks whether proposals for reforming social care will now move forward given the government’s lack of a majority.

The Conservative Party’s manifesto proposals for social care – promptly labelled a ‘dementia tax’ by its critics – was one of the turning points of the election campaign. The question now is whether, as a result of that debacle, all proposals for reforming social care are, in practice, a dead letter for this parliament, given the government’s lack of a majority.

The answer is they should not be. The problems in social care, which include the trauma it is causing for the NHS, are not going to go away. It would, however, be foolish to pretend that solving these problems will be easy – as illustrated by the fact that over two decades at least four serious independent reviews of social care and its funding, including a Royal Commission and the Dilnot review, plus at least a dozen Green and White Papers, have failed to produce a settled answer for England.

It is not easy because there is not one issue here, but four deeply inter-related ones. First, how far should individuals and their families be responsible for paying for social care, against how far should the taxpayer meet the bill? Second, a question that sounds similar but is in fact a different one; at what level of need should the state provide, and how generously? Third, how can the much greater integration of health and social care that everyone recognises is needed, be achieved? And fourth – an issue that lies behind all three of those – why do we as a nation apply totally opposite arguments to the provision of health and social care? For most people it is a matter of pride that the NHS seeks to treat everyone equally regardless of means. Yet when it comes to social care, the argument is that the state should not subsidise those with the means to provide for themselves – an argument that (a few prescription charges aside) is never applied to the treatment of cancer, diabetes or the need for a new heart, new hip or pretty much anything else the NHS supplies. It is possible we won’t get to a sensible and settled answer to the first three of these until we have answered the fourth.

The initial Conservative manifesto promise was chiefly about the first of these. How much should individuals (and thus by implication their families) pay, as against the state? Its inclusion was all the more bizarre because the Conservatives had already promised a Green Paper for the autumn, and already had, in legislation – but postponed to 2020 – the Dilnot proposals for a more generous means-test and a cap on lifetime total expenditure. What the manifesto effectively did was take Dilnot’s more generous means-test (by allowing people to keep £100,000 of their assets), drop the cap (set at around £72,000), and throw in the idea that people receiving care in their own home should pay for that care with the value of their home (down to the £100,000 floor). Half-baked is putting it politely – leaving aside the sheer administrative complexity of the last part of that proposition.

So what could the government do? And what should it do? Well, it could go back to Dilnot and meet the cost of that. Several billion pounds over the years which would have to come from tax rises or cuts elsewhere. But while Dilnot tackles the question of how much the individual should pay, it would not in itself increase the quantity of social care provision. That is decided by the needs test – how great do an individual’s needs have to be before they get help? – not the means test. And the ever rising level of need that is required before an individual gets the taxpayer’s help has been one of the key drivers of the current social care crisis. Finding the money to tackle that would be even more difficult if – as some are speculating – the government drops its commitments to end the triple lock on pensions and means-test winter fuel payments for older people.

So what the government should do first, in its humbled state, is reach out across the party divides to seek to build as common an answer as possible to these questions. In practice, if only the politicians could resist shouting ‘dementia tax’ or ‘death tax’ at each other, there has been more communality in their assorted answers to the ‘who pays’ question (including the idea that there should be a cap and that housing wealth will come into it somewhere) than they will publicly admit. And there are at least 20 years of common ground that social care will, one day, have to be sorted. Silence is not an answer. If the government seeks only to stay shtum, social care will come back to bite it, and hard.

This blog was originally published by the Institute for Government