As the nation stood on its doorsteps and clapped for carers – a collective attempt to do something while facing a crisis of such enormity that we could, in truth, do little but watch its passage – millions were woken to the extent of the crisis in our social care system. They were appalled at how it was cast aside at the beginning of the pandemic; shocked at the low rates of pay and poor working conditions of its staff; moved at the personal stories of those living their final years with the helping hands of carers. Care is broken, the people realised. Something must be done about it.
What luck that Boris Johnson, under whose premiership the NHS shepherded hundreds of Covid-infected older people back into care, thus provoking a quiet tragedy that will live in the collective memory for a generation at least, had a Bill ready, waiting and printed to show he was the man to act. That said, the Health and Care Bill hasn’t done much of the lifting thePrime Minister hoped it would. The dissent from the Conservative backbenches over the arbitrarily chosen £86,000 cap on personal contributions (experts had recommended a sum around £50,000 less) proved that it’s no political hit; you can’t talk about levelling up and then erase the inheritance pot of every family without the good fortune to live in an area where house prices have exploded in three decades. Johnson thought he had an easy solution to a difficult problem and has been left exposed.
Like all simplistic answers to long-standing, deeply complex and frequently divisive policy matters, the problems with the bill are far bigger than that. The measures, designed to “save” a crumbling piece of our social infrastructure, suffer from being frustratingly short-termist. What exactly is the point of setting out a charter for citizen care costs predicated on housing as the primary personal asset base? In 40 years’ time, a large proportion – some posit even the majority – of retirees will not be homeowners. In fact, there will be so many renting that the housing benefit Bill will cause a huge headache for the future Treasury. Hence the obsession with low-cost home ownership.
A load of technocratic tedium? You may say so, but this offers just one more example of what lies behind the barely glittering facade of most modern policymaking: the urge to be seen to do something – almost anything – and do it now. Even if it’s the legislative version of Whack-a-Mole, creating new problems while it fails to solve any of the existing ones. Indeed, a most grotesque example of this sort of kneejerk policy dump came very recently when, after the fatal stabbing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, there followed clamouring around the idea of a new legislation to protect politicians and other public figures from online abuse.
Quite apart from the impracticality of such an approach, what would it achieve? The man to stand trial for murdering Sir David is alleged to be an extremist who spent more than two years designing a terror plot against an establishment figure. He was, prosecutors are expected to say, affiliated to the Islamic State group and brainwashed by its religious zealotry. His murder is symptomatic of something important about the structure of British society and the roles of racial and religious groupings within it, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the online culture-wars warriors who spew vitriol by keyboard in box bedrooms the nation over.
It’s easy to predict the race to “fix” child protection in the aftermath of the appalling murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes will bring forth another series of such ill-considered proposals – all of which will ignore the decades-long underfunding of social care services and the speed of the introduction of lockdown. The haste may have been understandable, but not enough heed was paid to the clear risks it introduced for vulnerable children. Painful though the circumstances of his case are, we should resist a kneejerk response aggressively. It serves Labinjo-Hughes’ memory scant respect.
But it’s our own fault we end up with a politics like this. If we keep asking for action without due consideration – which, critically, takes a very long time – we will get pointless social policies that are too flimsy to withstand more than one cycle of government, two at best. We need to find our lost virtue: patience. And the other one that fled the arena when Gordon Brown lost the 2010 election: pragmatism. Careful policies that work take a long time to design. They might necessarily span more than one electoral cycle. Ideas need to be shared more fluidly between the political axes.
Since routine immunisation for teen girls was introduced in 1998, the number of cervical cancers in the vaccinated population has dropped by almost 90 per cent. The policy took years of planning and required excellent evidence of its efficacy before rollout. Moreover, it wasn’t an immediate political win
Some of the most successful policies in recent history, those that have fundamentally and demonstrably – I mean that very literally – have improved the health and prosperity of the nation, have been slow burners. Often they were introduced, and despite vibrant opposition, because the evidence suggested that objectively the benefits would outweigh the political risk. They were acts of bravery and also of confidence – decisions that put their trust in the hands of good policy rather than in the whims of the electorate.
A good example of this is the introduction of the HPV vaccine. Since routine immunisation for teen girls was introduced in 1998, the number of cervical cancers in the vaccinated population has dropped by almost 90 per cent. The policy took years of planning and required excellent evidence of its efficacy before rollout. Moreover, it wasn’t an immediate political win: it proved controversial, with parents raising concerns about the side effects and the potential cultural and social impact on their children’s lives. There was a further flare-up of this debate when the rollout was expanded to teen boys just two years ago. But who can deny this policy was worth the wait, worth the research, and worth the controversy?
To take a very old example, how about the creation of garden cities? Long in the design and building, Ebenezer Howard’s big idea for urban renewal still informs some of the better parts of British planning policy over a century later. His ideas speak to the urgency of climate change and our desire for a more equitable relationship with the natural and built environment around us. Yet we don’t see policymaking like that anymore. We are facing a housing crisis but instead we have – among other useless ideas – the empty promise and fiscal trap of shared ownership housing schemes.
Good ideas take time to originate, and good politics is about far more than responding to a baying mob. The biggest tragedy of Brexit is the damage it has done to what people think politicians are trying to do. They are not supposed to just win the argument, they are supposed to go on and demonstrate, practically, exactly why they were right to be entrusted with power. Will today’s government leave a legacy of any lasting achievements? Likely not, but we only have ourselves to blame. We don’t seem to have the patience for it.
Hannah Fearn is a journalist and columnist specialising in social affairs. She was comment editor of the Independent for seven years and writes a weekly column for that title. Her journalism also appears in the i Newspaper, Guardian, Financial Times, HuffPost UK and others. She has also worked as an editor and reporter for the Guardian, Times Higher Education and Inside Housing magazine