Baroness Margaret Eaton DBE DL

This article forms part of the LGA think piece series 'Towards a sustainable adult social care and support system'.

Thirty years in politics at both the local and national level has taught me a great many things about the ingredients required for effective change in politics. Clarity on the change being sought matters. As does clear and evidenced options for achieving that change. To the mix I would add meaningful engagement with all relevant partners, as part of a process of testing, refining and strengthening those options further. But perhaps above all else, and whether it be in the council chamber or the chamber of the House of Lords, it strikes me that change is often most successful when politicians from all parties come together and agree solutions on a cross-party basis.

I cannot think of a more urgent need for such an approach than on the question of how we secure the long-term sustainability of adult social care and support. Put simply, there is no higher national priority than supporting people to live independent, happy and dignified lives, and that is what care and support is all about.

In my time as Chairman of the Local Government Association – an organisation which draws its strength from speaking with a unified political voice – I saw our three main national political parties put forward ideas for securing the future of adult social care. Labour had their ‘big care debate’ in 2009 leading to the white paper, ‘Building the national care service’ in 2010. Later that year, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats put forward their ‘Vision for adult social care’ under the Coalition Government. In respect of articulating the importance of care and support I am confident I could quote from each publication, and the many linked speeches, announcements and debates, and you would struggle to identify the author behind it.

If the vision and the fundamentals are broadly shared, or at least without major contention, why then has our political system – of all colours – failed to resolve this most pressing of questions? I believe the answer lies in our short-term political cycle. On the big questions, and with a General Election only ever just around the corner in the grand scheme of things, our political cycle can occasionally lead to ideas paralysis. And when it does not, and when ideas – particularly more radical ones – are put forward, they are instantly a target for opposition parties to go on the attack.

But it need not be like this and there are examples we can point to that give us hope for the future. Pensions reform is a recent example of consensus and, of course, the post-war experience showed what was possible as our modern welfare state emerged. And this is not just about past precedent. Today, more and more MPs and Peers are calling for a cross-party approach to social care funding reform, recognising that to really put care and support on a sustainable footing for the long-term some difficult decisions will be required. I like to think that it is also recognition of the fact that such difficult decisions will not be confined to this Government, but future governments as well. It is future-proofing the debate by taking the heat out of it now.

Perhaps what is needed above all else is a slight finessing of what we are seeking on the political front. Perhaps it is not ‘consensus’ we need (as helpful as that would be) at this stage; maybe we should aim more realistically for ‘cooperation’ as something to build on. This could see the Government and our other political parties agreeing a shared analysis of the problem. It could extend to a shared commitment to help raise awareness of why social care matters, how it operates, and the consequences of not giving it the funding it so desperately needs. Maybe it could even see our key national political figures agree to sit down to talk the issues through. In short, an amnesty on the politicking of social care funding reform. I for one would bang that drum and hand out sticks for others to join the beat.

As is so often the case, national government could learn a lot from local government.

I would therefore also urge national leaders to sit down with their local counterparts who have proven capable time and again of parking political differences for the sake of improving the communities they are democratically accountable to.

Whatever colour your rosette, I urge all politicians to come together and unite around the common aim that got us into politics in the first place: to improve our communities and the lives of the people who live within them.

Baroness Margaret Eaton DBE DL