Using housing wealth to fund social care: why the Care Act 2014 is unfair

Posted: 04 Feb 2015 06:30 AM PST

Nicholas HopkinsEmma Laurie

The Care Act 2014 reinforces the expectation of leaving housing wealth as an inheritance, which perpetuates inequalities across generations, argue Nicholas Hopkins and Emma Laurie. Intergenerational fairness requires homeowners to use a greater proportion of their housing wealth to fund social care rather than relying on the state.

The issue of funding social care costs is one that provokes strong feelings. Many homeowners resent the idea of having to sell the family home to pay for residential care costs. But with an ageing population, a real concern is raised over who should pay. The Commission on Funding of Care and Support (the Dilnot Commission) was an independent body tasked by government with reviewing the funding system for care and support in England. Its report, Fairer Care Funding, provided advice and recommendations to government and was subsequently enacted in the Care Act 2014.

The Dilnot Commission’s overriding objective was to make the system of funding adult social care fairer as well as sustainable. The Commission took the view that it was fair to limit the extent to which an individual is required to draw on their own wealth, including housing wealth, to pay for the costs of their care. It also recommended that the home should not have to be sold during the owner’s lifetime in order to pay for social care costs.

To achieve these two objectives, the Care Act 2014 places a cap on individual liability for care costs and provides a scheme of Universal Deferred Payment (UDP). UDP is intended to prevent ‘forced sales’ of the home. Despite its name, it is not intended to be available to everyone. We consider that the measure is justified and that its operation could be confined to those who would otherwise have to sell their home. This could be achieved by making UDP available only to those who could not pay the capped sum from non-housing assets.

Our concerns with the Care Act 2014

Our principal concern lies with the Act’s treatment of housing wealth through the cap. Its effect is to preserve individual wealth and, in practice housing wealth, at the expense of the public purse. Ultimately, it will benefit those who will inherit that wealth. The use of public funds to preserve an inheritance lies at the heart of our criticism.

By passing a greater proportion of the costs of social care to the state, the Act will inevitably have undesirable – and unfair – consequence for the younger generation of taxpayers. We therefore advocate a phased scheme which would aim to change the expectation of leaving housing wealth as inheritance and, instead, inculcate an expectation of using housing wealth to fund social care costs.

This will be a controversial argument for many people. We understand the sense of unfairness felt by current homeowners at having to use housing wealth to pay for their social care costs and the desire to leave housing wealth as an inheritance. The ability to provide an inheritance is one of the bases on which homeownership has been promoted. Equally, there is understandable confusion about the different funding models for health and social care. While health care is provided free at the point of delivery, social care is means-tested and incorporates an assessment of a person’s assets to determine eligibility for financial support from the state.

The need for intergenerational fairness

Nevertheless, the wider concern of intergenerational fairness requires homeowners to use a greater proportion of their housing wealth. There is a growing recognition that issues of intergenerational fairness must form part of the ‘social contract’ between individuals and the state. In the UK, life expectancy has been growing while the birth rate has been falling. The consequence is popularly referred to as a ‘demographic time-bomb’, and the phenomenon of an ageing population is a policy concern that has been taken up at international, European and national levels.

But government policy on the need for intergenerational fairness is inconsistent. On one hand, the government has taken steps to increase the age of eligibility for the old-age pension and further increases are planned. On the other hand, it has passed the Care Act 2014 which entails a greater proportion of the costs falling on the state and, inevitably, the younger generation.

Changing expectations

Inculcating an expectation of drawing on housing wealth to fund older age care can address our concerns of intergenerational fairness. Such a policy reflects the principle of asset-based welfare, which entails expanding asset holdings among low-income households as a means of reducing wealth inequalities and promoting wealth-creating behaviour among citizens.

Successive governments since the 1950s have consistently encouraged homeownership and, as a result, housing wealth now exceeds other forms of investment to become by far the largest element in personal disposable assets. Homeownership has spread wealth more widely than any other form of asset or investment. Despite doing so, housing wealth is unequally distributed. Many older property owners have seen large, tax-free capital gains over the past few decades due to the rising value of property. The proportion of housing wealth held by older people is forecast to grow, while the term ‘generation rent’ has been coined to refer to those younger people who have no realistic prospect of buying their home. Inculcating an expectation that people will look to their housing asset, rather than to the state, to fund their welfare can reduce those intergenerational disadvantages by requiring homeowners to use the wealth in their lifetime.

Homeownership has not been explicitly promoted with the idea that the wealth will be drawn upon to fund the owner’s older age. Combined with the lack of understanding of the difference between health and social care, it is perhaps unsurprising that a strong sense of unfairness is felt at the prospect of housing wealth accumulated over a lifetime being dissipated by the requirement to fund a few years of social care. However, rather than attempting to change expectations, the Dilnot Commission’s proposals, as implemented by the Care Act 2014, appear uncritically to accept the perception of unfairness. The Act reinforces the expectation of leaving housing wealth as an inheritance, which perpetuates inequalities across generations. As a result, the funding model provided by the Act is neither fair nor sustainable.

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