Comment: Darling's route map to the workhouse

Last week, Alistair Darling gave his first pre-Budget Report and Comprehensive Spending Review since he became Chancellor.

John Knight
John Knight

Voluntary organisations that provide social care services, such as the one I work for, always approach these showcases with optimism. We have to. In the years between CSRs, we struggle to provide the services local government wants - often in the face of ever-increasing costs and bureaucracy. In the past few years, more and more disabled people have been shunted out of publicly funded social care, yet their needs are real and remain. And it doesn't look as if the situation will get any better.

According to this year's review, funding to local authorities to pay for these services would increase by £2.6bn by 2010/11. That's an average annual increase of 1 per cent over three years. I shall refrain from contrasting this investment with other government priorities, except to say that I believe the way a nation supports people who need social care is a mark of its integrity and humanity.

So what does this mean for voluntary organisations that provide contracted social care services? More struggle, certainly. But as the state effectively retreats, we will begin to see an increasing number of people with real and often urgent needs going without essential social care services. Disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to live below the poverty line. So for many people, funding their own social care - politically, an increasingly fashionable course for consumers - is not a possibility. If you haven't got money, you can't buy.

One unintended consequence of this might be that the voluntary sector will have to turn the clock back and start providing a 21st century version of the poor law. I even heard a chief executive of a national charity raise this possibility, without dissent, on a national platform recently. Such a move would be highly repellent to the many people who do not want to rely on 'charity', and we should certainly not be courting it. Do we really want the return of the workhouse? Absolutely not.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire

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