Tories accused of ‘scaremongering’ over social care plans

The Conservatives were today accused of “scaremongering” after claiming that more than 2 million elderly people could lose out under the government’s plan to offer free social care at home to needy pensioners.

Labour claimed that Andrew Lansley and Theresa May were “completely wrong” to say that some pensioners could lose up to £3,400 a year from the government’s plan.

Lansley, the shadow health secretary, and May, the shadow work and pensions secretary, launched a strong attack on the measure – identified by the government as one of the most important in the Queen’s speech – as two Labour peers also criticised it in the strongest terms.

The Tories said that Andy Burnham, the health secretary, had indicated that two benefits claimed by the over-65s could contribute to the funding of the new care package. They said that 2.4 million pensioners claimed the two benefits and that, if they were to be abolished completely, the elderly would lose a total of £8bn.

The two Labour peers, Lord Lipsey and Lord Warner, criticised the plan on different grounds. Lipsey said it would cost too much and Warner said it had not been properly thought through.

The personal care at home bill is designed to allay growing concern that pensioners are being forced to spend all their savings and sell property in order to fund care. It was presented by Gordon Brown yesterday as a step towards his long-term ambition of establishing a National Care Service to match the National Health Service.

The government said it would cost £670m and that it would help around 400,000 people with care needs.

But Lansley and May held a news conference to attack the plan. They said that Burnham had suggested that disability living allowance for the over-65s, and attendance allowance, a benefit only paid to the over-65s, could both be cut as a result of the government’s plans.

Around 1.6 million people claim attendance allowance and on average they receive £60 a week. Another 800,000 over-65s receive disability living allowance and on average they receive £75 a week.

Lansley said: “As ever with Gordon Brown you have to look at the small print. In order to set up a new National Care Service he is planning to take away vital benefits from the elderly and disabled.

“It will mean that many pensioners will lose around £60 a week, which could be as much as a quarter of their income.”

He also claimed the government plan could involve taking £3,400 a year from 2.4 million pensioners.

To justify their allegations, the Tories quoted from a speech Burnham gave to the National Children and Adult Services conference in October.

Burnham said that he had ruled out bringing disability living allowance for the under-65s into the new National Care Service. But he went on: “However, we do think there may be a case for bringing together elements of some disability benefits, such as attendance allowance, with social care funding, to create a new care and support system to provide for the needs of older and disabled people.”

But Labour strongly rejected the Tory allegations. A party spokesman said: “Once again the Tories are scaremongering on health. It is completely wrong to claim that we are funding any aspect of our care reform proposals by cutting people’s benefits.

“All the proposals we outlined in the Queen’s speech are funded through efficiencies and reprioritisations in the Department of Health and in local government.

“We have been absolutely clear that those currently receiving attendance allowance and those over-65 receiving DLA would continue to receive an equivalent level of support and protection in any reformed system.”

In an interview in the Times, Lipsey, a former member of the royal commission on long-term care, said the government plans amounted to “a demolition job on the national budget”.

He said Brown’s announcement was like “an admiral firing an Exocet into his own warship”.

Lipsey went on: “I’m not looking forward to the night of the next general election but, if the result goes as I expect, one of the consolations will be that one of the most irresponsible acts to be put forward by a prime minister in the recent history of this country will be swept away with his government.”

Lord Warner, a former health minister, also criticised the plans. He told the Times: “There has been no proper impact assessment, and no data to show how this would work. There’s a big question mark as to whether there’s even actually a bill ready.”

Today Harriet Harman, the leader of the Commons, told MPs during business questions that Warner was wrong and that the bill was “ready”.

In an apparent reference to Lipsey, she also insisted that the government’s plans were realistic.

“All of the things that are being said about the personal care at home bill were said by people about the National Health Service. ‘It cannot be done.’ We said yesterday it can be done and it’s necessary,” she said.

“Just as we set up the National Health Service, we need to pave the way for a National Care Service for the growing number of elderly people in this country.”

The bill would guarantee free personal care at home for up to 280,000 elderly and disabled people with the highest needs – although 166,000 do already receive free care.

A further 130,000 who need home care will also benefit for the first time from other measures, including adaptations to their homes – such as the installation of electronic pill dispensers – so that they can carry on living in them for as long as possible.