Care Minister admits services are under 'enormous strain' as he pledges extra help

Pledge follows disclosure in the Independent that the crisis in social care is costing the British economy more than £5bn a year

Services for the elderly and disabled are under “enormous strain”, the Care Minister acknowledged today as he promised extra help for family members who give up work to look after relatives.

Norman Lamb's pledge follows the disclosure in the Independent that the crisis in social care is costing the British economy more than £5bn a year in carers' lost wages and tax contributions as well as benefit payments.

"The system which has remained underfunded for decades is under enormous strain," he said in an interview with the Independent.

"But it doesn't have to be a crisis - there can be some hope for the future."

He said the draft Care and Support Bill would put carers "right at the heart of the system" by requiring councils to assess the burden faced by carers in their areas and to give support to those found to be shouldering a heavy burden.

Mr Lamb also said the Government was urging colleges to allow teenagers who care for disabled parents to have more flexible study patterns.

Blaming the previous Labour administration for the financial strain on care budgets, he said: "Over the last decade there has been massive investment in health which has not been matched by investment in the preventative services."

He made clear the Government's austerity measures would make it difficult to boost care budgets, but insisted the money allocated to them could be used more efficiently.

"I will of course do everything I can to secure funding for [care], but it's also about how we use the money available. We need to break down the barrier between health and social care - we have this crazy divide between them."

He warned that the pressures on the system would increase relentlessly because of Britain's rapidly-ageing population.

"There is the question of demographics. People are living longer, there are more care needs out there and more families are having to face that reality."

Mr Lamb, a Liberal Democrat, said the Coalition was determined to resolve the question of funding long-term care for the elderly "once and for all".

In a Government-commissioned report, the economist Andrew Dilnot recommended a cap of £35,000 on the care costs individuals can face in their lifetimes. But his proposal has been put on hold while ministers wrangle over how to pay for it.

Mr Lamb said he wanted to secure all-party support for a new care funding system as it would be designed to last for decades.

He is also considering asking an independent expert to step in to resolve the points of dispute over the Dilnot blueprint.

David Cameron has told his Cabinet he wants the issue settled, while Nick Clegg has said he regards resolving the impasse as a priority for action in the second half of the Coalition's term in power. They are aiming to produce their proposals by the end of the year.

The Deputy Prime Minister this week promised "some long-term changes, which won't come to fruition this Parliament, but will in future Parliaments, for instance fixing our broken social care system, so that the elderly have decent and affordable care provided to them".

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