We should use Winter Fuel Payments to fund social care reform

Asking the better off to sacrifice a £300-a-year benefit, could save the same people tens of thousands of pounds in care bills.

Care is a lottery and I have published a report, Delivering Dilnot: paying for elderly care, to explain how we might eradicate this lottery. My aim with this CentreForum report is to start an adult conversation about how we pay for care reform. In brief, I am arguing that the money for Winter Fuel Payments should not just disappear into Treasury coffers, but be recycled back into the pockets of those who most need it: the poorest and frailest older people. Ultimately this is about asking the better off to sacrifice a £300-a-year benefit, so that many of the same people can save tens of thousands of pounds in the future. Not an unreasonable exchange.

To illustrate my point let me give you an example. The average price of a house in London is £365,000. Under the current system, someone with these assets faces losing up to 41 per cent of this figure in care costs. Were a cap of £60,000 introduced, this percentage could be cut in half.

In the coalition government’s Mid-Term Review there were some encouraging signs that sorting out care will be our legacy. As I anticipated, the government reaffirmed its commitment to the principles of Dilnot. But more telling, and encouraging, was the language used in the foreword of the review – which confirmed that an announcement on care reform will be made in the coming weeks.

Currently, the state will only start to pick up care costs once a person has less than £23,250 in savings and assets. But this means test for social care in England and Wales is one of the meanest in existence. By contrast, my proposals (based on recommendations from the Dilnot Commission) would raise this figure to £100,000. This change alone would make a huge difference to thousands across the country and would make social care more generous. But because this figure is not the more easily-understood ‘cap’, it rarely gets airtime in the media.

A cap will require new legislation and detailed implementation by local councils over the next few years, so if my proposal were adopted nothing would change until 2015 or 2016. This is an important point to make to those worried that this would affect them in the near future.

I also agree with many members of the public that the 440,000 pensioners who live abroad but who still receive the winter fuel payment should stop receiving the benefit. This is an anomaly in the system that is clearly unfair. But this move would save £100m – nowhere near enough money to sort out our broken care system.

Of course, I would like to pretend there is some pain free way in which the reforms could be paid for, but so far no-one has come up a workable solution. If the Treasury does come up with such a proposal then I will be the first person to applaud it.

The next few weeks will reveal whether this coalition government has the political will and determination that Labour never had to put this issue right. I believe that it does, and I am hopeful we will finally be able to deliver peace of mind to families up and down the country.

Actor Tony Robinson (C) joins campaigners protesting in support of social care opposite Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat MP for Sutton and Cheam and the former care services minister

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution