12 Mar 2024

Daisy Cooper MP: The Liberal Democrats' 'ambitious' plan for adult social care

Bridgehead Social Care managing director, William Walter, interviews Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for health and social care, to hear her party’s “ambitious but credible” plans for the future of adult social care

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Often interviews with politicians can prove to be a dry formulaic one-way flow of information. Cooper is not like that. She conveys sincerity and a genuine passion for her brief.

We kick off by discussing her thoughts on the shortcomings of the current government’s approach to social care. “Simply put, it’s just not a priority for them,” she asserts. “What we’ve seen time and time again is that the government seems to wait until there’s a crisis in the NHS” before throwing “large sums of money at the problem, hoping to solve it. There’s never a long-term plan to look at the issue.”

As to how the Liberal Democrats would approach these issues, the St Albans MP is equally clear: “We want to put social care at the absolute heart of our manifesto and the general election campaign.” Her party would be “open and honest about the scale of our ambitions in this area, along with the associated costs”.  

Proposals vary across the board. First, one of the Liberal Democrats’ priorities is to introduce free personal care for both over 65s and working age adults, which encompasses support with nursing care, personal hygiene, mobility problems and the taking of medication. The party has estimated that introducing free personal care would cost the Treasury £5 billion, but savings to the NHS as a result would mean the net cost of the proposal would be just £3 billion.

Cooper is keen to point out these numbers are based on independent analysis: “We’ve used a lot of different authoritative sources on this – the IPPR [Institute for Public Policy Research] has calculated that [the £2 billion in savings figure] is the net saving that can be made across the NHS,” she says. This figure does not factor in other potential savings that could be made elsewhere as a result of fewer people requiring hospital treatment – having been looked after in their own homes under the scheme. “We want this plan to be seen as both ambitious and credible, based on numbers that have been crunched by the experts,” she says.

Among other proposals is a higher minimum wage for care workers across the country, a part of a larger plan to “make sure that care workers themselves are really valued”. Particularly during Covid, care workers “made enormous sacrifices, and there hasn’t been a proper reward or recognition of the enormous contribution they have made”, Cooper argues. She suggests that the current failure to appreciate properly the skilled nature of care work, and support employees with sufficient renumeration, was partly responsible for the “mass exodus” of care workers to other sectors, including the NHS, hospitality and retail roles.

A key aspect of the Liberal Democrats’ plan for social care is the introduction of a Royal College of Care Workers. Noting the success of Royal Colleges in the health sector in promoting the interests of their members so effectively, Cooper argues that the introduction of a similar body for care workers would provide “the status, the voice, the pay and the career progression that many carers really want to see”. As the care sector changes, as the needs of care users change, and as the care workforce itself changes, she hopes that the Royal College would ensure care workers “always have a voice at the table”.

“A lot more support for the millions and millions of unpaid carers” across the country is also an important pillar of the Liberal Democrats’ plan for adult social care. Cooper’s parliamentary colleagues have made recent progress in legislating for further support, not least Wendy Chamberlain MP, whose Carers Leave Act is scheduled to come into force in April this year. Under the provisions of the Act, employees who balance work with caring responsibilities will be entitled to at least one week of unpaid leave annually. Cooper explains that the Liberal Democrats would commit to making this leave paid, rather than unpaid, if elected.

Also proposed is an increase to the carers allowance provision of around £1,000 a year, and the Liberal Democrats plan to increase the weekly income threshold at which people become ineligible for Carer’s Allowance.

Asked about how the Liberal Democrats plan would provide support for care home providers, Cooper argues that “stability and long-term security” are key, where providers know that the government has got a longer-term plan. The Liberal Democrats would, she states, not only introduce a social care workforce plan “to provide some certainty to the sector that actually we are serious about recruiting the staff we need across the sector”, but would also propose a long-term funding settlement.

Cooper is clear that the money for these proposals would not come from taxes on struggling families; it would come from “big companies who have done really well over the last few years who can afford to pay to support our public services”.

Cooper is also optimistic about the potential for technology in the care sector, though she is keen to point out that many care users prefer to discuss the topic on the premise of “living tech-enabled lives”, rather than simply discussing “tech-enabled care”.

She offers several examples of where technological innovation could, and does, play a significant role in supporting the social care sector. Sometimes, she argues, “it’s as simple as having an electronic tablet box that reminds you when to take tablets. That can be life-changing”. Cooper discusses The Tribe Project, a technology-based organisation that aims to increase social action in the care sector through the use of applied technology, reducing pressure on public services across the UK. She nonetheless suggests that a lack of synchronisation between integrated care boards across the country is making the wider expansion of technological innovation in the sector “really hard”. “If we could try to harmonise that,” she continues, “we have a much better chance of rolling out tech innovations that would lead people to have tech-enabled lives”.

Concluding the conversation, Cooper stresses the overarching importance of prioritising social care. “At its heart and root, social care should be there to enable people to live their lives as they choose – happy, long lives, living in dignity, with as much independence as possible. I feel incredibly passionate about that.”

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