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Caring war of words

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What a mess. What a tangled, yah-boo-sucks, shambles. And how better to leave the public more convinced that politicians are only in Parliament for their own narrow ends - and to make them less likely to vote?

So must the weary electorate see the ‘debate’ between Andy Burnham and Andrew Lansley about care for the elderly.

Even Dame Joan Bakewell, in her heroic role as ‘voice of older people’, has thus far been unable to stop the boys fighting.

The main parties have, without thinking about it, started a war about the funding of care for older people that looks set to run all the way to polling day.

Labour has suggested paying for guaranteed care by the introduction of a £20,000 levy to be paid out of an individual’s estate when they die.

The Conservatives have pounced on this proposal as a ‘death tax’ and produced campaign posters accordingly.

The Tories’ own proposals have included a voluntary £8,000 one-off payment that would guarantee care costs. Labour has also commissioned market research to test if a potential 10% levy on all estates would be acceptable.

There is something dispiriting about a fight picked over the provision of services for a group within society which is so regularly left uncared-for

Tony Travers

Burnham has convened a conference this week to consider ways forward. It seems unlikely that he and Lansley will be able to bury their differences for the cause of common good.

Local government, as the lead provider of many elements of care for the elderly have, predictably, been omitted from much of the debate about how to provide services and, most importantly, funding.

In the unlikely event national politicians can agree what would be best for the country, councils will doubtless be required to manage the resulting policy and probably provide much of the cash. A white paper is due soon.

What has been less discussed is how it has proved possible - in England, at least - to have lived through a decade during which there has been a 50% rise in real-terms public spending while politicians have ignored the growing costs of care for the elderly.

It is now necessary to address the question at a time when expenditure is about to be cut sharply.

Moreover, health and social service needs in Britain are normally met from general taxation. It is hard to see why older people should suddenly be singled out for ring-fenced taxation in relation to their social care.

The government fought hard against so-called ‘co-payments’ within the NHS, yet it is proposing to introduce a form of co-payment for social care for older people.

Politics is politics. We should welcome adversarial debate. But there is something dispiriting about a fight picked over the provision of services for a group within society which is so regularly left uncared-for. General election apathy will be the only real winner.

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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