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9 January 2013

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.

By Paul Burstow

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.

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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.

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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.