Social care reform: Fears over funding plan

Ministers have recommitted themselves to overhauling the social care system in England amid fears reforms could be kicked into the long grass.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley will spend the next few months drawing up plans before publishing the details in a White Paper in the spring.

However, the thorny issue of how to pay for the system is still to be resolved.

It comes after there were suggestions that changes could be diluted or delayed.

A government-commissioned review by the economist Andrew Dilnot, which was published in the summer, recommended a series of changes to protect the elderly from having to sell their homes to pay for care.

These included capping the amount people pay at £35,000.

The government then launched a consultation exercise, involving a range of parties involved in the sector including local government, charities and the insurance industry.

That has now finished.

Nonetheless, concerns had started circling that reforming the system, which encompasses home help with things such as washing and dressing through to residential care, was going to prove a step too far.

The issue has been talked about for more than 10 years. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he promised action, but politicians from all sides were still arguing about it during the final phase of the Labour government.

But Mr Lansley has now reiterated he will seek to publish a White Paper in April.

He refused to comment on how it might be funded. It is estimated an extra £1.7bn a year will have to be found, which has prompted some to speculate tax rises may be needed in the current tight financial climate.

Mr Lansley said: “Do we think all of this is achievable with the current level of resources? Clearly not.

“The point of Dilnot was that additional resources need to be brought into play, but there are a range of ways in which he suggested that might happen.”

Question marks still remain about how best to encourage the public to plan to pay for their share if they need care.

Means testing

The Dilnot review suggested insurance policies could be developed, but other options include using the equity in people’s properties. The cap would be means-tested, so the poorest would not have to pay.

But as well as reforming funding, Mr Lansley also said it was important to look at ways of controlling demand through preventative measures such as telecare that would allow people to live more independent lives for longer.

Attempts are now being made to set up cross-party talks with Labour on the issue in a bid to achieve political consensus about the best way forward.

However, Department of Health officials are still working on the basis that legislation will be pushed through before the next election, allowing a new system to kick in around 2015.

Jeremy Hughes, the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, who led one of the strands of the consultation exercise, said 2012 should be the start of real change for social care.

“Transformation of this scale cannot happen overnight, but I am pleased the government is working with the sector for urgent reform.”

Michelle Mitchell, charity director of Age UK, said it could not happen soon enough.

“Local authority cuts have created huge pressures in the care system which hurt some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

“Hundreds of thousands of older people who desperately need support to live an independent life either receive no formal support or have since their care packages reduced due to budget constraints.

“We need care reform now.”