25 May 2017

As the general election campaign restarts, the debate may return to the U-turn executed on social care on Monday. Jill Rutter argues Theresa May’s attempt to make progress on social care was brave, but underlines the problem with making policy behind closed doors.

U-turns are not unprecedented. Indeed, there is a good case for saying that governments do better to execute an elegant U-turn when their policy direction appears untenable or misguided, than soldier on throwing good money after bad.

But Monday’s U-turn on social care – or as the Prime Minister prefers to call it “clarification”, did strike seasoned commentators as unprecedented. Veteran election watcher Sir David Butler tweeted that it was the first time a government had backtracked on a flagship commitment during an election.

So where does the debate over social care funding pick up?

It was brave of the Conservatives to put the challenge of coping with an ageing society into their manifesto.

It was also courageous to start confronting the issue that if people want more care, someone has to pay – and to start raising questions over some elements of pensioner benefits. 

But what this shows is that springing a new idea into a manifesto, developed in secret in No. 10, with no place for considered analysis or proper consultation is – unsurprisingly – a catastrophically bad way to make policy. There was no excuse for this – the Government had already committed to a green paper on social care. What it needed to do in the manifesto was simply to ensure it preserved the flexibility to come up with a workable system and the means to pay for it.

The danger is that this policy has gone from just being poorly thought through, to poorly thought through with a new adjustment added as a rushed afterthought in the form of a cap at an unspecified level. No one knows what the parameters of the new system will be – and so, no one knows the costs and whether this enables more funding for care or simply increases or redistributes the costs of the current system. Both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation have been trying to make sense of it.

The backlash and confusion that now surrounds the Conservatives’ social care policy is a warning to the Prime Minister and her team. This is not the first time that a closed-door policy-making process has caused them trouble. If returned to office, they need to invest more in opening up policy and the choices government faces.

For starters, the Government needs to go back to the drawing board and produce a well-considered green paper, with extensive input from beyond Downing Street and drawing directly on the experiences of service users. It must capture the complexity of the interactions between health and social care, private and public funding, the viability of private operators, exacerbated by the costs the sector faces from the National Living Wage, reduced EU migration, and the interaction with taxes and benefits and the housing market. It will also need to set out its guiding principles, explore the implications of different options and share its modelling of the effects.

Only then will the Conservatives be able to make good on their more important promise: to tackle the challenges of an aged society. What we need is not just a reversal of a single policy – but a U-turn on their attitude to making policy.

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Comments

It's perhaps not surprising that a snap election gives rise to half baked policy proposals. My guess is that this policy was included in the manifesto because of the assumption of a landslide victory and a specific manifesto commitment would prove a useful lever to push an unpopular policy through Parliament (Commons and Lords) but if you are going to try to pull that trick you have to be pretty sure that you are pushing a good solution - even if it isn't popular- this seems to fail on both counts. Jill is right: a better approach to policy making is essential but maybe some moderation of the alledged convention that manifesto commitments cannot be rejected in Parliament.

Hi

I really enjoyed this piece as it confirms a general argument I have made recently to the effect that the British 'policy style' has changed over quite a long period, from a consensual/consultative policy style in which interest groups played a key role, to a more 'impositional/top down policy style, with pop-up policies etc. Groups still get consulted but about the 'how' not the 'what' and end up making the best of a bad job. I conclude that this is high risk policy-making. This is not just a UK phenomenon I think.... the same downgrading of interest groups can be seen in Scandinavia and even Switzerland. It is part of the explanation of so many policy blunders!

Jill, you are absolutely right. They urgently need a new approach to policy - and to the rest of the Cabinet. It is a mistake to have a nearly invisible Cabinet for the whole of an election. It leaves you with a risk of over exposure and no one else to blame when things go wrong.