I’ve never been a very good numbers person – not great on dates, and I’m the type who might tell you, “There’s been a terrible explosion! 350 people were killed! Or was it 3,500? Or 35? Er . . . not sure.”
But I am good at grasping principles, and at joined-up thinking, and at understanding human situations.
As I’ve watched and listened and read during these weeks running up to the UK election, I find it difficult to remember the exact data about the NHS, for example – just how many hours doctors have to work or how many nurses posts have been cut, or exactly what is the annual salary of the nurses who have had to resort to feeding their families from foodbanks.
And sometimes I don’t think quickly enough to answer someone’s point. For example, the man who was talking to me in the street about politics the other day. I was concentrating on staying calm and polite while he thrust his face about four inches away from mine and said he wouldn’t vote Labour because Jeremy Corbyn is a man of peace. “If someone comes at me with a knife,” he said, “I want a gun in my hand!” He extrapolated from this an international imperative of stockpiling nuclear weapons.
If I’d thought fast enough, I might have pointed out that the problem with his preferred system would be that the next time his attacker might have a gun in his hand – and then what? Surely what you want if a man comes at you with a knife in his hand is a robust police force, and maybe good negotiating skills and a well-resourced mental health provision. Our police force is in a desperate condition, defunded and cut back to the bone. Our mental health provision is evaporating.
I did manage to think quickly enough to point out to a man insisting that there was no point saving the NHS as its fundamental problem was old people aspiring to live to be 300, that since his wife is an occupational therapist she’ll probably lose her job if we have any more cuts.
But the main thing I’ve been struggling to communicate is the grave consequences of what’s being called the Dementia Tax.
This is that proposal to fund social care from the equity of the patient’s home, all bar £100k.
People arguing in favour of this make it sound very reasonable – social care is expensive, the money won’t be taken until the recipient’s death (so they won’t suffer or be made homeless), and £100k is a generous amount to have left over for a legacy.
But there’s a gaping hole in this. What if the person who needs social care is not the only one whose home it is?
Let me sketch out a couple of possible scenarios.
Suppose an elderly couple become increasingly infirm, but they have a son who is a minister in the church – someone who is on a very low income and has lived in occupational housing. Suppose that son, on retiring, didn’t take up the option to have a church retirement house because he moved in with his ageing parents to care for them. One of them is frail and needs to be taken to numerous medical appointments, he has to do all their shopping and cleaning (and his own) – but one of them develops dementia and cannot be left alone. Nobody can be everywhere at once doing everything. So the son has to have help with necessary social care. Then one of his parents dies. Perhaps at this point the house will remain the property of the surviving parent, if it was jointly owned. But what when the second parent dies? The son, now an elderly man, with very little in the way of savings because his occupation was not highly-paid, will have to sell the house to pay for the social care his parents had. In the area where I live, a small 2-bedroomed terrace house is now worth over £200k, and you couldn’t even get a one-bedroomed flat with no garden or separate kitchen for £100k. It would be too late for the man to generate earnings or take out a mortgage. In the rental sector there’s fierce competition for homes, private sector rents are very high (even for bed-sits), and there is very little social housing left. I think there’s a strong chance that man would become destitute.
Or imagine a scenario where a woman has two daughters, both born in the 1980s, both working as care assistants (valuable but low-paid work). During their adult years, property prices have risen faster than their ability to save for a deposit, and rented housing is beyond their ability to afford – but it’s okay, because they continue to live in the family home. They enjoy each other’s company, the mortgage is all paid off by an insurance pay-out when their father died, and their mother has left the house to them in her will. It won’t be subject to inheritance tax as her savings are very modest. Then she gets cancer. She suffers a long, slow deterioration. To pay the household bills and cover groceries etc, her daughters have to keep working. Their own care skills are a good support to her, but as her condition declines she needs the extra support of social care. After seven years, she dies. Because her daughters have undertaken much of her care, there is only £85k owing to the state. The house has to be sold to pay it, leaving £112k after estate agents’ and solicitors’ fees have been settled. This is a nice nest-egg, but unfortunately not enough to buy a house. Where once the sisters would have been able to manage comfortably, with both of them working and their home owed outright, now they will face big financial problems. Even with the two of them sharing, care assistants’ wages don’t go far (the hourly rate is £7.75).
The proposed Dementia Tax would have very far-reaching social consequences, stripping out the carefully accumulated security of families, transferring the assets of the middle classes into the pockets of the very rich – because social care, like the NHS, would be provided by private companies.
When you look carefully at what such proposals mean, the magnitude of the consequences becomes really shocking.
I am not an especially political animal, and I personally believe most political approaches work well if they are administered with goodness and compassion.
But our present UK government is a cynical administration with a cavalier approach to the concerns and sufferings of lower-income people. If they have another 5-year chance at government, the way of life we have enjoyed in Britain for so long will be irretrievably lost, and the desperation of grinding poverty will become a common phenomenon.
Please, even if you normally vote Conservative, Lib Dem or Green, vote Labour this time – unless you are voting tactically according to your neighbourhood. To save our NHS, to save our education system, to maintain the stability of our social fabric and infrastructure, we need a change of government. And in real terms this is a 2-horse race. The only way forward this time is Labour.