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Health conference to debate elderly care

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 19 February 2010

Health Secretary Andy Burnham stages conference on the future of elderly care, claiming politicans have "ducked the issue for too long". But the Conservatives stay away.

Elderly hands (Getty)

The meeting of local authorities, charities and care providers discussing ways of looking after the country's ageing population.

Hosted by the Health Secretary Andy Burnham, it follows secret talks between the three main political parties before Christmas, which ended in acrimonious exchanges.

It is disappointing the Conservatives are not there," Mr Burnham told Channel 4 News.

"This is an attempt for politicians to hear from care organisations, councils and charities. People today are already paying for care, but they are paying according to their vulnerability. That is what I am setting out to change."

The health secretary also said the current system was "unfair and unsustainable", and admitted Labour had been slow to tackle the issue after 13 years in power.
"Yes politicians have ducked the issue for too long. Let's be honest, they have. We have not been doing nothing but we have not settled the fundamental question about how we pay for a fair system for care," he said.

The Tories say there is now a clear difference of opinion between them and Labour and it is unlikely that a consensus can be found.

"I will talk to anybody, anytime, anywhere, but I won't take part in a Labour Party political smokescreen that stops people making progress and covers up the fact that they are pursuing the option of a compulsory death tax," the shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said.

A government white paper suggested one way of paying for care would be a compulsory tax of £20,000 paid after an individual died.

The Conservatives have described this plan as a "death tax".

Mr Lansley says this would create a "strong incentive" for families to push the burden of care onto the state if Labour chose to finance it through a compulsory insurance scheme.

The Conservative argue should voluntarily pay £8,000 when they retire, which would then meet the future costs of their care. But that might not be enough to pay for care.

Currently care for the elderly is means tested. If your assets are worth more than £23,000 you have to pay. This means that many pensioners are forced to sell their homes to pay the costs.

Forced to sell family home
In a letter to conference delegates, Mr Burnham said he recognised the current car system in England needed reform.

"There is a growing recognition that the current system is both unsustainable and unfair," he wrote.

It has led to sparked anger from one veteran Labour party activist Pauline Turner, who ripped up her membership card over the care provided to her mother Annie in Margate, Kent.

"Labour are treating people like my mum abominably," she told Channel 4 News.

Annie, 88, suffers from Alzheimer's and lives in a residential home.

Because her bungalow was worth almost £200,000, 10 times the cut-off point for free care, Pauline and her sister were forced to sell it after accepting an offer £35,000 less than its true value.
"To sell the property broke my heart," says Pauline. "My mother worked from the age of 14 to 60, paid all her tax and insurance. Where has all that money gone?"
Reaching consensus
The charities Age Concern and Help the Aged welcome today's meeting, but are concerned that it may turn into another political row.

"Reaching consensus on care is fundamental in ensuring older people and their families get the best care and support in later life," says Michelle Mitchell, director of both charities.

"They've been let down by the inadequate system for far too long and unless we act now, it will crumble even further as our population ages.

"It's time for our politicians to put their differences aside and start working together to deliver much needed care reform which will serve generations to come.  We welcome support from the political parties for us to provide a neutral platform for this debate and hope we can all move forward and find long term solutions." she said.

Dame Joan Bakewell is an independent advisor to the government and the so called "Voice of Older People".

She believes political point scoring is holding up a solution.

"This not merely about today's older citizens. It's also about how people now in their 30's, 40's and 50's will fare when their turn comes," she says.

Read her article in full here

For many people retirement is a long way off, yet alone thinking about how they will be cared for in their late 80s.

But unless a solution is found now, a funding black hole could prove far more problematic for them, and the government, in the future.

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