Care charges to be capped

I was pleased to see that a Measure (the Assembly equivalent of an Act) has been proposed which will cap non-residential care charges by local authorities at £50 per week.

     

     Care charge to be capped at £50 - BBC website, 30 June 2009

But I think it might be worth commenting on how long it has taken us to get there. In the first instance the Labour party said they would abolish these charges altogether as one of their 2003 manifesto commitments. They decided not to honour that pledge when they got into government.

In their 2007 manifesto the commitment been watered down to:

We will also seek new powers to allow a third-term Labour Assembly Government to amend the law in relation to charging for domiciliary care, so that charges for similar services are made more consistent and less variable across Wales.

In marked contrast, Plaid's 2007 manifesto included:

• stopping the hospital closure programme, and capping and then scrapping the council tax and care charges for the elderly. New ideas for a new era.

OK, that last sentence might have been a little over-the-top. After all, Labour had said they would scrap care charges ... although they didn't actually do it. Either that, or one of the "new ideas" the author had in mind was the startlingly novel idea that a party in government should do what it says it will.

In more detail, the Plaid commitment was:

Free Care

Plaid believes in securing free care provision for older and disabled people, in principle and as an aim. We reject the distinction between nursing and personal care. Intimate personal care can not be described as optional or a matter of convenience for the patient. By linking entitlement to care given by nurses, the current funding structure leads to older people and disabled people being denied appropriate care thereby causing preventable health deterioration and often hospitalization.

In the short term a Plaid Government will:

• Cap Charges set by Local Authorities.
• Raise the savings threshold for contributing towards residential costs to more accurately reflect the value of an average family home.
• Create Benefit Take Up teams in every Local Authority to ensure that older and disabled people receive benefits to which they are entitled.

To bring in our policy of free care, a Plaid Government will request the necessary powers to create a National Care Fund financed through a proportion of the revenue received as part of our proposed local income tax.

OK, so we didn't mange to negotiate all of it into the One Wales Agreement we made with Labour after the election. But I think you can clearly see from which side the initiative and momentum that has now led to this Measure came.

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The second thing I would like to note is the timescale. We've been part of the One Wales Government for two years now. Why is this Measure only being announced today?

The answer is the LCO system. The Assembly had no powers to pass the sort of law that would cap the amount that local authorities could charge. We had to go through the drawn-out process of asking Westminster for permission to do it. But in the end they said yes, so let's give them credit for that.

But now think what would happen if a different party happened to be in power at Westminster. It would be very easy to imagine the Tories vetoing the ability of the Assembly to make such a law on the grounds that:

"It is up to local authorities to decide how much to charge. They are answerable to their ratepayers. The Assembly shouldn't interfere with democratic local government, therefore we won't give you the power to make such a law."

That of course sounds quite reasonable ... until you take a look at the huge discrepancies between local authorities. If an authority like RhCT can charge as little as £16.20, why should other authorities charge more than ten times that amount? It is clearly and obviously unfair, and it is therefore right that the Assembly should be able to set limits ... not least because local autorities only raise a comparatively small proportion of their income from local Council Tax payers.

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We need to bear this in mind over the next few years, when we will all come under great financial pressure because public money will be in short supply. In essence there are always two ways of handling a problem like this: the first is to use money from the block grant to solve every problem; the second is to use legislation as a means of ensuring that others take a fair share of that responsibility.

The Welsh Government could have chosen to just give money to local authorities so as to make their care charges more uniform. That wouldn't require legislation, just money. But think of the consequences. It would have meant a high charging authority would get more money than a low charging authority. That in turn would have meant that low charging authorities would put their charges up, knowing that they would then recoup the higher charge. So it would result in an upward spiral of costs.

But on the other hand the ability to require local authorities to keep charges down by law has a dampening effect on costs ... and doesn't require additional money to be found from the block grant. Win win.

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In other words, the ability to legislate has very real and practical consequences for the ability to deliver public services effectively. This is why we must ensure that we gain the right to legislate without having to ask permission from Westminster every time.

So, if Labour really are serious about defending Wales from the effect of the cuts which are on their way, they know what they must do: make sure that the Assembly gets primary lawmaking powers.

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