The term “black hole” is an apt shorthand in the austerity era. It deftly sums up the current scale of funding shortfalls and at the same time creates the sense of a seemingly bottomless pit of cuts from which it will require the greatest of efforts to pull us back.
A new study by the Fabian Society points to one such black hole – the £10bn needed to fill the gaps in provision for disabled older people’s care. Half the shortage comes from cuts to social care funding, while there are further serious shortfalls in everything from council-funded care home places to isolation and accident prevention services and specialist housing. To this end, on Monday, Labour announced a “more generous level” of cap on lifetime care costs, ahead of Jeremy Hunt laying out new plans for social care this week, including his own cap on costs.
This would mark a pragmatic move from Labour, with senior figures on the left said to want Jeremy Corbyn to commit to higher spending on disabled elderly people in an attempt to narrow the Tories’ lead among older voters. The “dementia tax” – one of the greatest follies by Theresa May at the last election – proved the Conservatives are not certain to keep their hold on older voters. They have long treated older people as a guaranteed voter bloc – and for good reason (a recent poll for the Social Market Foundation found only a quarter of those aged between 65 and 74 would consider voting Labour at another election). But this increasingly appears to be a one-sided alliance, with the Conservatives rewarding loyal older voters by pushing hundreds of thousands more pensioners into poverty since 2012 and leaving 1.2 million of them without support to carry out basic day-to-day activities such as washing, dressing and eating.
Enid Stevens MBE – a former nurse honoured for services to the NHS, who featured on ITV news this month – exemplifies this. After breaking her back, Stevens, 93, was left in pain in a hospital corridor for six days as staff struggled to find her a bed. “I was left alone for hours and hours. Incontinent – I could not stop it,” she told reporters, in tears. “I was wet down from my neck and all my clothes were absolutely soaking. It was terrible.”
This is a scandal that needs addressing – and it’s right that the needs of disabled older people should finally be included. While disability is often left out of conversations around care for older people, the Fabian report highlights how Labour can offer a comprehensive understanding of the inequality affecting older disabled people, be it with sufficient social care packages or accessible housing. But there’s a real need to look beyond the elderly to younger disabled people too. A disabled person in their 20s clearly has very different priorities from a 70-year-old with disabilities at the start of their retirement. But many of the areas the report points to for older voters – insufficient social care or unsuitable housing – are also issues affecting working-age disabled people. This is too rarely talked about.
Social care has long been seen as an “older person’s issue”, despite the fact that disabled people represent a third of all social care users. Equally, these issues are often ignored in policies pitched at young people: the rise in voter engagement among this demographic has been widely credited with Labour’s increased success but when we talk of the crisis hitting millennials, young people with disabilities are rarely featured.
There’s a real need to look beyond the elderly to younger disabled people too
As part of its review into the future of social housing, this week Labour announced a laudable measure to protect social rents, as well as committing to building 100,000 social and affordable homes a year. And yet there’s still been no mention of a pledge to improve accessible housing, despite there being 1.8 million disabled people who are struggling to find somewhere to live, according to research by LSE for the charity Papworth Trust.
The squeeze on young people’s wages, meanwhile, means that young Britons are at risk of being the first set of workers in modern times to see their lifetime earnings fall, and with cuts to disability benefits and reductions in social care, there are many young disabled people who can’t even physically get out of bed to get to work in the morning. There is a risk that as politicians pitch for votes, younger disabled people will be missed on two grounds: “too disabled” for the young voter demographic and “too young” for the older disabled bloc.
Disability is in many ways an untapped opportunity for political parties. There are 13 million disabled people in the UK, with the vast majority politically engaged (almost nine out of 10 who were eligible said they intended to vote at the last general election). In light of continued Conservative cuts to social care and disability benefits, Labour is in a prime position to represent their interests. It would be a natural extension of the party’s commitment to disability equality to take housing, economic and health policies and start relating each to the needs of disabled voters. The so-called “grey vote” is a promising start. But as disabled old people are courted, the younger generation should not be forgotten.