Lib Dem conference: Lamb calls for cross-party solution to social care crisis

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The Liberal Democrats’ shadow health secretary has called on the Conservatives and Labour to work on a cross-party basis to find a solution to the growing social care funding crisis.

Norman Lamb said that politicians needed to accept that none of the parties had come up with a “sustainable solution”.

Lamb, who was speaking at a fringe meeting at his party’s annual conference in Bournemouth, spoke of the “shameful” way the Conservatives had tried during this year’s general election campaign to abandon their previous promise to cap lifetime care costs, proposals which were “roundly condemned” and proved disastrous for voters’ perceptions of Theresa May as prime minister.

Since 2015, he said, he had made it his mission to persuade the government of the need for a cross-party approach to the social care funding crisis.

He said: “There is no better case to put to Theresa May than what happened during the election campaign.

“She tried to do it on a partisan basis and she came horribly unstuck.”

But he said he feared that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not have “any real interest” in collaborating with Theresa May and instead saw social care as “something to bash the government with”, which he said was “irresponsible”.

Before the election, he formed a group of eight Conservative, eight Labour and seven Liberal Democrat MPs to work together on the issue.

But he said he feared that the government was “so focused on this overwhelming priority of Brexit that other critical challenges are not getting the air-time and attention that they need”.

He said: “I will continue to make the case. It is the rational way of doing things.”

But he said he feared the country would “pay an awful price” if the “inertia” continued much longer.

Lamb was speaking at a fringe meeting organised by the charity Dimensions, which provides services for people with learning difficulties, and the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group, which represents charities that provide services in the social care sector.

Lamb (pictured at the conference) said it would make life more difficult for the government if the solution to the crisis “came from the people experiencing the failing of the system rather than opposition politicians.

“It would be most powerful if coming from the users of a dysfunctional system

“We have to encourage those let down by the dysfunctional system to say, ‘we demand change’.”

He added: “Despite what the government has said about increases in funding for social care, the finances of county councils are impossible.

“The public has no idea what is coming down the track [in further cuts].

“I keep saying to the Tories: ‘You can own this nightmare and we can attack you mercilessly, or you can share finding a solution and we are prepared to step up to the plate.’”

Gary Bourlet, co-founder of Learning Disability England, whose members are people with learning difficulties, families, service-providers and commissioners of services, told the fringe meeting: “We are spending too much money on buildings instead of people’s lives.”

Bourlet, who brought the People First movement to England in the 1980s, said social care reform also needed to be about health, education, jobs and housing.

He said: “It needs to be about the aspirations of disabled people and their families so disabled people can see a real future.

“Disabled people need to work more with families and providers. In Australia, they changed the government’s policies by coming together.

“At the moment, we are living in an uncaring society. Nobody seems to care about people with learning disabilities or autism.

“The reason why we need to pay more tax is to support our development in our social care.

“If we stop paying the tax then a lot of people will go without support and be unable to build the confidence and self-esteem and be part of a community.”

Mark Brookes, another leading self-advocate, who works for Dimensions, said he had seen a significant change for the worse in social care in the eight years he has been working for the charity.

He said the situation “has not been so good and money has been cut”, and told the meeting that disabled people were living in “hard times”.

He added: “Funding is being cut by local authorities left, right and centre, especially during the last three years around budgets.

“I think it’s going to get worse.”

In his main speech to the conference, Lamb later highlighted the need for cross-party co-operation to solve the NHS and social care funding crisis.

But he also raised the issue of the long waits for treatment in children’s mental health care, and Care Quality Commission figures showing there were 3,500 beds in locked mental health rehabilitation wards, which he said was “a contradiction in terms”.

He said he was also appalled by the continuing widespread use of facedown restraint in mental health wards, four years after he published guidance as a care services minister to try to end the practice.

He pointed to the case of an autistic 15-year-old, who had been subjected to repeated, heavy use of restraint, and confined to a small, cell-like room, in an independent hospital.

Two years after he helped to get her out of the placement, he said her life had been “totally transformed” and she had not been subjected to restraint on a single occasion since she left the hospital.

Lamb said it was a “stain on this country’s reputation” that many other people were being subjected to similar treatment.

And he said it was “a scandal of our time” that there were so many people in prison because of their mental ill-health, where their “chances of proper care and treatment are not good”, while there were “a catastrophic 40,000 cases of self-harm” in prisons last year, with a suicide on average every three days.

Meanwhile, a new survey of social workers in England by Community Care magazine and the Care and Support Alliance has provided “shocking evidence of just how threadbare the social care safety net in England has become”.

More than two-thirds of the social workers who responded to the survey said they felt they were expected to cut people’s care packages because of local authority funding pressures.

More than a third believed they could not provide people with the care they needed; more than a quarter were not confident that the reduced care packages they had to oversee were “fair and safe”; and more than four-fifths said service-users’ family and friends were being expected to provide more support to fill in the gaps where care packages had been cut.

One social worker said: “I had to reduce the care package for three brothers who live together. Each has either a mental health problem, physical or learning disability.

“They had a substantial care package for 15 years. It kept them safe from financial abuse and enabled them to live in the community.

“After reducing the care package two of them went into residential care and died. The other was admitted to hospital with dehydration and hypothermia.”

Another social worker said that cutting care packages had “led to individuals becoming more isolated, engaging in risky behaviour and being exploited”.