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Politicians clash over social care funding

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 March 2010

Health Secretary Andy Burnham says the government has ruled out a fixed-rate tax to fund social care, as Channel 4 News brings together the three main party health spokespeople for the first major pre-election televised debate.

Care home for the elderly (credit:Reuters)

Health Secretary Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley and Lib Dem health spokesperson Norman Lamb came together for the first time since cross-party talks on the funding of care of the elderly collapsed in acrimony.

Last year the government proposed three main options to pay for a new national care service, including a comprehensive compulsory insurance scheme, which everyone would pay into regardless of how much or how little care they needed.

The government's green paper suggested this could be funded by a fee of around £20,000, paid for either during someone's working life or when they died.

Conservative party posters last month branded this compulsory levy a "death tax".

Andy Burnham said today that it was fair to expect those who could afford it to contribute towards the cost of their long-term care.

"Under the comprehensive option [the green paper] talks of a contribution of between £17-20,000. That's the kind of level of figures we're talking about," he said.

"If you were to go down a comprehensive, compulsory route you could make that a percentage option rather than a flat-rate contribution. We've actually ruled out a flat rate contribution for the compulsory option."

The government had also proposed a voluntary insurance scheme, but Burnham said this would work out more expensive as fewer people would pay into the scheme.

Lib Dem spokesperson Norman Lamb said that in France there had been 20 per cent take-up of a voluntary system, leaving 80 per cent with the same "nightmare" of having to fund their own care.

He was also keen to avoid a voluntary flat-rate fee. "If you have a premium everyone pays that seems unfair," he said at the debate, chaired by Jon Snow.

"Is it fair someone living in a small semi, who has worked all their life but is not rich, pays the same for care in old age as millionaire couple living in a mansion?"

Lansley today still refused to sign up to any solution that included a compulsory tax. He said compulsory insurance was a "bad policy" that "would be unfair for people who care for own relatives".

"The public will not support it and the public finances will not support it," he said.

The Conservatives instead propose an £8,000 one-off voluntary insurance scheme which people could sign up for at the age of 65. This would cover the cost of any residential care they needed, but not the cost of care needed at home.

The audience included members of the public including representatives from organisations including the King's Fund, the LGA, Counsel and Care, the Alzheimer's Society.

Labour peer Lord Warner asked from the audience whether it was time to draw a line under the political bickering, and come to find a solution on the issue.

Burnham and Lamb both said they would agree to decide on a solution within a year, but Lansley refused to sign up to such a deal while the idea of compulsory insurance was still being considered.

Burnham also agreed that more regulation of care providers was needed, in response to questioning from audience member Enid Said.

"I cared for my mother for 20 years before she died at home. A few hours before she died, her carers left her on her own while I went to get a prescription," she said.

"There are appalling standards going on - you need to regulate them, get rid of these agencies and bring in in-house services."

"It's a combination of poor investment and regulation that needs to be tougher," replied Burnham. "We are bringing in more regulation of social care providers. It's not an overnight thing though - we can't change it overnight."

Andrew Harrop of Age Concern and Help the Aged, which organised the event, later said it had achieved the aim of getting the three main parties to discuss the funding of social care on a neutral platform.

"However, the parties continue to be bitterly divided on whether there should be new compulsory payments to fund care in later life," he said. 

"All the options being discussed require more public money, in one way or another and politicians need to say where it will come from. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

"In our view, none of the parties have yet set out credible proposals for comprehensive reform of the care system. In particular, they need to say how they will improve the quality and availability of services. We urge them all to set out their plans in full before the election to give voters a choice. Politicians owe it to all of us to maintain the momentum behind care reform and come up with long-term solutions."

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