Councils may be allowed to raise taxes further to pay for social care, according to today’s Times front page. This might look like cause for celebration, after a chorus of concern about government inaction following the Autumn Statement. But it is indicative of the government’s sticking-plaster approach to straining public services – an approach which we know is not sustainable.
Today’s headlines about a burgeoning crisis in adult social care are not surprising. The issues they highlight – care homes at risk of financial failure, falling numbers of people provided with state-funded support, hospital beds blocked by people waiting for a care package – have been worsening for some time.
But what is new is the government’s response.
George Osborne gave councils powers to raise council tax by 2% to pay for social care. Now, Theresa May reportedly agrees to make further increases in council tax. This looks like a sharp change of direction (and we’ll know more when Sajid Javid makes a statement to the House – likely to be Thursday).
The response to social care echoes the Government’s response the embattled prison service. After three years of rising violence (assaults on prison staff have increased by 83% since 2013), last month’s Autumn Statement included a £500m funding boost up to 2019/20 for the justice system, effectively reversing around half of the cuts made since 2010.
And both of these responses are not a sustainable approach to spending reductions. The government cannot keep lurching from crisis to crisis, waiting for public (or media) outcry to reach a fever pitch before intervening with an injection of cash.
The warning signs of pressures in adult social care were there for all to see: the collapse of the Southern Cross care home chain in 2011, the steep rise in hospital bed days being taken up by clinically healthy people awaiting discharge into home-based social care (up 200% since 2013). Not to mention the universal outcry from sector advocates. These are all warning signs the Government should have seen – and should have addressed before today.
When government decides to reduce spending in a public service, while committing to maintaining scope and quality, it needs to work out how it’s going to do it. Some strategies – like reducing fees paid to service providers – can work at the beginning, but Whitehall needs to be able to respond to changing pressures, and make new plans when the old ones run out of road. It needs to identify the warning signs before a crisis is reached.
The Institute for Government is showing what can be done when you do look across public services as a whole. Our new Performance Tracker report, to be published early next year, we will outline the measures to watch out for that can point you in the right direction.
But our aim is not to examine this information as an end it itself. Our aim is to help the Government get better at doing this type of monitoring itself, to identify when and how to change course.