The ‘death tax’: worth a second look after all says Lansley

Britain’s ageing population is a national success story. Life expectancy is the highest on record, the product of universal improvements in healthcare, social support and education...

Britain’s ageing population is a national success story. Life expectancy is the highest on record, the product of universal improvements in healthcare, social support and education.  A newborn baby boy could expect to live to 77 and baby girl to 81 if mortality rates remain the same as in 2006, though this masks significant regional inequality.

This has a political dimension though: who pays for pensions, but also who pays for care – supporting basic daily tasks like washing, dressing and preparing meals – when we need it, which the NHS does not provide. The UK needs more carers and more care homes, but lacks a sustainable way of funding it. Currently in England, only people with assets of less than £23,000 receive state funding, with many forced to sell their family homes. A percentage levy on estates after death would avoid older peoples’ anxiety about how to fund care costs.

Labour came to this issue fairly late on but it was pursued by Andy Burnham. As health secretary his white paper ‘Building a National Care Service’ proposed “people get their care free when they need it in return for a compulsory contribution… [whereby] society takes collective responsibility for sharing care costs, in a way that will give people peace of mind and will allow them to plan properly for later life”.

This raised the political profile but a key feature of debate was the spoiling tactics of Andrew Lansley when he refused to participate in cross party talks. Instead he attacked Burnham’s proposals as “a death tax”, backed by adverts with tombstone imagery (see right).

Lansley was accused on a BBC Politics Show three-way debate by Lib Dem Norman Lamb, now a Coalition transport minister, of “not being straight with people”. The Tory election campaign advocated an £8,000 voluntary insurance model to cover residential care costs.

Times have changed however, in that this week’s terms of reference for the Coalition’s Commission on Funding of Care Support, published by the Department of Health, do allow consideration of the compulsory option.

The move was highlighted as a major u-turn by Lansley in the Guardian and Daily Mirror., while the Telegraph quotes Lansley from earlier this year on Burnham’s proposal and the poster campaign:

“It was necessary to criticise him and right to criticise him, because frankly it is an extremely bad policy.”

Burnham has welcomed the commission and pledged opposition cooperation. He commented:

“If anything shows how Andrew Lansley played politics ahead of the election then this latest U-turn is it. As with the NHS White Paper, today’s announcement is yet another example of the Tories changing their tune only weeks after the election.”

Care funding is one of a growing number of issues where the divide between the home nations is widening. Scotland took advantage of its devolved powers to offer free personal care for the elderly, which Labour in England rejected as too expensive. However, the body representing Scotland’s 32 councils is the latest to call into question the future of free personal care for the elderly.

Lansley’s Funding Commission has 12 months to make its report. Yet with significant spending cuts for social care predicted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Lansley knows he will then have to address the issue of how to fund the care costs from growing old.

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