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4 July 2011

Will the coalition waste this chance to reform social care?

Osborne must not be allowed to strangle Dilnot's proposals at birth.

By George Eaton

It was as long ago as 1997 that Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference: “I don’t want [our children] brought up in a country where the only way pensioners can get long-term care is by selling their home.” Nearly 14 years later, however, more than 20,000 pensioners do exactly this every year.

The publication of the Dilnot Report provides the coalition with a chance to succeed where Labour failed and reach agreement on a long-term solution to the care crisis. As expected, Dilnot, the former director of the IFS, has proposed a cap of around £35,000 on care costs (the report suggests any figure between £25,000 and £50,000 would be acceptable), and a rise in the means-tested threshold from £23,250 to £100,000. Since the cap does not take into account the cost of food and accommodation, Dilnot has also called for a separate cap of between £7,000 and £10,000 on these “hotel costs”.

His proposals have been erroneously portrayed by some as another “tax on the middle classes”. But the reverse is true. Under Dilnot’s plan, the middle classes will pay less (the average bill is currently £50,300, with one in five facing costs of £100,000), while the state pays more. A £50,000 cap would cost the government £1.3bn, while a £25,000 cap would cost £2.2bn.

It’s for this reason that some are already suggesting that the government, in the form of George Osborne, will strangle the proposals “at birth”. One cabinet minister tells Benedict Brogan: “It’s DOA, there’s no doubt about it … At a time like this we simply can’t afford it. We’ll have to return to this issue at a future date.” To which one can only reply: hogwash. Any new system is unlikely to come into effect until 2015, by which time, if Osborne’s calculations are to believed, much of the deficit will have been eradicated. Short-term fiscal considerations must not act as a barrier to long-term reform. The Lib Dems’ imaginative proposal to introduce capital gains tax on profits from first homes above £1m is just one example of how the state could raise more from the asset rich.

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The coalition also has rare opportunity to forge a cross-party consensus on this issue. The last attempt to do so was, of course, destroyed by the Tories, who cynically attacked Andy Burnham’s proposed compulsory levy as a “death tax”. Despite the Tories’ electioneering, however, Ed Miliband, has made a “genuine and open” offer to reach agreement. It is one David Cameron must take. Along with Miliband, every charity in the land is agreed that delay is no longer an option.

Asked earlier today what his response would be if the proposals were “kicked into the long grass”, Dilnot rightly replied: “Astonishment”. The longer ministers prevaricate, the worse the crisis will get. If the Lib Dems want a chance to prove that they can exercise real influence on government policy, here it is.