Burstow: pensioners will have to pay for their own elderly care

Pensioners must face up to “the nasty truth” that all but the poorest will have to pay for their own elderly care, a minister has warned.

Paul Burstow, the health minister, said he expected a public outcry when detailed plans for the future funding of the social care system in England are announced next week, as he ruled out an NHS-style free national care service for all.

However, the minister suggested that the government would delay a final decision on reforming the social care system, prompting concerns that the issue could yet again be “kicked into the long grass”.

On Monday, a commission led by the economist and broadcaster, Andrew Dilnot, will publish its long-awaited blueprint for funding care and support for elderly and disabled adults.

Mr Dilnot was appointed by ministers to draw up plans for a new system in July last year, two months after the coalition took power, in an attempt to resolve one of the longest-running and most difficult issues facing public policy.

The current system of funding for services such as residential care, home visits, and meals on wheels, is under unprecedented pressure as a result of Britain’s rapidly ageing population and tight budgets.

Anyone with assets of £23,250 or more, including property, is not entitled to any state help with the cost of a care home place, which is typically £26,000 a year but can rise far higher. An estimated 20,000 people a year are forced to sell their homes to pay for care.

But Mr Burstow told an audience at the King’s Fund think-tank in London that social care for the elderly would “never, ever” be free and warned pensioners that a fully state-funded system was “a fantasy”.

“It is not free. It never has been and it never, ever will be free. I agree with those who say that the boat has sailed on a wholly tax-funded social care system,” the minister said.

Mr Burstow said one in four people faces care costs of more than £50,000, while one in 10 will have to pay more than £100,000 for the long-term support they need in old age. “This is social care’s nasty little secret,” he said.

“We must make sure that people do not look at Dilnot’s plan through rose tinted glasses, comparing his plans with a fantasy of free care, because it does not exist.

“When Andrew (Dilnot) tells us that he has an answer to social care funding, that all but the poorest will have to pay, the reaction might be a bit lukewarm, at best.

“There are no cheers for the bearer of hard truths.”

Mr Dilnot is expected to recommend that care costs are capped so that individuals will pay up to the first £50,000 with the government stepping in to pay any costs above this level. Individuals could then take out new insurance products to cover the costs, save through their pensions, or downsize to a smaller home to fund their share of the bill.

But there have been reports that the Treasury is reluctant to offer a guarantee that it will cover all costs above the £50,000 cap as the Chancellor George Osborne seeks to reduce the deficit.

Labour has pledged to engage in constructive talks over the Dilnot plans but Mr Burstow hinted that an internal battle to secure reforms was likely.

A White Paper setting out the Coalition’s detailed proposals, originally planned for later this year, may now not be published until 2012, he said.

“Next week, don’t expect the government’s final word on funding reform. The Dilnot report marks an important milestone on the road to reform but there are more milestones to come. There are challenges on the way.”

Michelle Mitchell, charity director at Age UK, warned that reforming the social care system must not be delayed.

“The government needs to set out a clear timetable,” she said. “Many people are watching very closely and if there is any sense that the timetable is slipping because this is being kicked into the long grass, we would react angrily and very critically.”