Months ago, I was asked about the political implications of the Dilnot review into care in old age for the government. My instincts were that enough tough policy issues - tuition fees, structural deficit, pensions in the public sector - had already been brought out of the long grass by the coalition.My fear, however, was that this issue was too controversial and that it should probably stay in the long grass. This is an instinct it would appear I share with George Osborne, according to the Observer yesterday. If the reports are true, both of us are right for political reasons but wrong for policy reasons.
With the number of centenarians projected to rise from 11,000 in 2008 to 80,000 in 2033, this is a debate that ran out of time well before the last general election. Whatever Andrew Cooper's private polling in Number 10 says, this is a moment when there is a moral obligation for all politicians to find agreement, not a time to worry about the headlines.
By definition, this is a public policy issue that will not go away. It is an issue that needs, if anything, a Beveridge-style response that combines realistic policies now, with changes that will have far reaching impact. It is a policy issue that needs to meet the demographic challenges which will hit as the baby boomers begin to retire and more costs for social care are borne by fewer working taxpayers.
What is almost unique about this problem is that the vast majority of charities, voluntary sector and private sector in this area are all begging for reform and minded to be supportive of the Dilnot conclusions. Above all they are united in their view that any delay is unsustainable.
Sadly the front page of the Observer gave us a clue about the dangers of how this issue will play out.
They could have headlined their story in several ways:
"Andrew Dilnot on verge of historic (Beveridge-style) breakthough on funding of care in old age"
"Top charities write to Prime Minister demanding support for new scheme to fund old age"
"Labour announces they are willing to work with Coalition Government to resolve old age funding"
Instead their headline was "Middle class face £35,000 bill to help pay for care in their old age".In other words, quite understandably, they thought: let's sell papers not let's improve policy. Headlines like this will cause George Osborne and David Cameron to panic, they will fear that it heralds a "death tax" approach to old age care. It will fail to recognise that the middle classes already pay with no limit; that the cost of care in old age has already risen to an average of £50,000; that almost one in five who need residential care after the age of 65 face a bill of more than £100,000.
Add to that the debate about local authority social care funding that Age UK has kicked off today and we start to see an all too obvious repeat of the fury caused by the health reforms.
But this is different. Funding of care for older people has been kicked into the long grass by successive governments, even in 1997 with an overwhelming majority Tony Blair's attempts to resolve this failed.
If the media wish to take a view, it should be to make it a duty for politicians to work together to solve this. The alternative is grim. The number of people forced to sell their homes to fund residential care the number will be far higher. One in four people will continue to believe that Government will provide for their old age - when even under the present system the state offers help with care costs to people in England only if they have savings and assets of less than £23,250. Hardly anyone uses any kind of saving system to prepare for their old age, and if they do there is no certainty about the likely costs they will face.
If Number 10 return this issue to the long grass they will be disappointed: the grass burnt to the ground some time ago. There is no hiding place from this critical issue. Therefore this is a moment to shred the polls, and decide what you believe in, Beveridge didn't need opinion polls, on this occasion neither does David Cameron.