While the introduction of the social care precept in 2016-17 has clearly not worked in the sense it has addressed the funding crisis in the sector, from the perspective of central government it ticked all the boxes.
It allowed ministers to look as if they were doing something, without having to dip into their departments’ pockets and while staying one step removed from the tax increase. Given the lack of public outrage at almost universal 4% increases in council tax this year, it’s little surprise that a new chancellor has again alighted on the precept as a means to generate a few extra quid for social care.
The compounding effect of switching from a total increase of 6% over three years to 6% over two years allowed the communities secretary to state that he was making an additional £652m available for social care over the course of the parliament. However, that equates to an increase of just 1% in the total amount of additional council tax available over the next three years, barely denting the social care funding gap. As many commentators have pointed out, the amount that can be raised varies significantly around the country due to the differing sizes of council tax bases.
The precept now looks less like a first step toward a bigger prize and more like a convenient political fix
Among the council leaders LGC has spoken to this week, the mood seems to be one of grim acceptance that they will once again have to ask residents to stump up. The thinking goes that although in most cases it will make little significant difference to the current crisis, something is better than nothing the thinking goes. Plus, if they do not apply the maximum precept, some argue, the sector will weaken its case to government that social care is in crisis and needs a sustainable funding solution. It’s Hobson’s choice with added Catch 22.
Last year, when the first iteration of the social care precept was announced Local Government Association chair Lord Porter described it as the start of a journey towards more locally generated income. However, 12 months and many government personnel changes on and the precept looks less like a first step towards a bigger prize for local government, and more like a convenient political fix for Whitehall.
This year the noise around the social care funding crisis was louder to begin with and has not dissipated with the announcement of the precept. The LGA and the rest of the sector have been united in their disappointment at the extra 1%. This combined with the very real, if not quite humanitarian, crisis engulfing the NHS has ensured the issue has remained in the headlines. But it’s still not clear if the government is listening.
Theresa May’s ’shared society’ speech this week suggests a prime minister focused on tackling long-standing injustices, such as low educational attaintment among certain groups. That is commendable; but she cannot continue to ignore the immediate crisis in social care.
Editor Nick Golding is on parental leave and will return in May