It goes without saying Brexit has overshadowed much of the usual business of government.
The bold vision of domestic policy reform Theresa May set out on the steps of Number 10 on her first day in office in 2016 has been reduced to a sideshow at best, as she grapples with the all-consuming endeavour of trying to steer the country to the European Union’s exit door.
Among the domestic policy priorities that have remained on the backburner, none is more pressing than the reform of social care funding. A green paper was originally due for publication in the summer of 2017.
Several delays followed, but it was finally expected by the end of 2018. Yet it remains as elusive as a solution to the Irish backstop conundrum.
One can hardly blame the government for its reticence in coming forward with proposals on social care. In 2017, the Conservative manifesto blew up when its answer to the social care crisis proved unpopular. Ministers know this is a potent political issue, with the ability to derail careers. In January, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons he intended to publish the green paper before April.
Well, we are waiting. I wouldn’t hold my breath on seeing it any time before the current hiatus within parliament over the withdrawal agreement has been resolved.
When the last Care Act went through parliament in 2013/14 (the one that would have capped the cost of social care at £72,000), the industry saw an opportunity to innovate and create new products, to help people meet the costs of their care needs up to the value of the cap.
It seemed there was finally some certainty. Then, in 2015, the government announced the cap would be delayed to 2020, before being scrapped altogether in 2017.
What can we expect when the green paper finally appears? The government indicates the proposals will “ensure the care and support system is sustainable in the long term”, as well as looking at issues around the workforce and carers, technology, and greater integration with health services. This will be easier said than done. It will need to set out a viable funding structure for local councils, whose budgets have been crippled by increasing social care costs, and revisit a proposed funding formula for the cost of individual care.
We should bear in mind the green paper is only the first stage in a lengthy consultation. A white paper will need to follow, before we even get to the stage of legislating.
Meanwhile, Labour is doing its own thinking. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell recently confirmed the party will soon publish its own proposals, with it known to favour the establishment of a National Care Service, with a greater role for the public sector. If an early general election materialises, we should expect this to be a key dividing line between the major parties and the Conservatives will need to ensure they avoid the pitfalls of 2017.
If we ever get out of the Brexit vacuum, social care will once again be a key political battleground.
Iain Anderson is executive chairman at Cicero