Leader: We must not waste this chance to reform care for the elderly

Britain still lacks a care system capable of ensuring dignity in old age.

In 1997, 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, Britain still lacks a care system capable of ensuring dignity in old age. The scale of the demographic challenge, combined with the squeeze on social care budgets, means the situation is likely to worsen.

At present, 800,000 of the two million older people in England who need care receive no support from the public or private sectors. By 2014-2015, spending on care in real terms will be £250m lower than in 2004-2005 but the number of people aged over 85 will have risen by 630,000. The near collapse of the care homes provider Southern Cross Healthcare and Panorama's exposé of abuse at Winterbourne View, a private home for those with learning disabilities, have also underscored the inadequacy of much of the existing provision.

The coalition government has an opportunity to succeed where Labour failed and reach an agreement on a long-term solution to the care crisis. On 4 July, the economist Andrew Dilnot will publish a government-commissioned review of the future funding of social care. He will recommend that individuals should have to pay no more than £50,000, with the state covering costs above this amount, and that the threshold for free care be raised from personal assets of £23,250 to nearly £100,000.

Several newspapers, preferring to scare rather than inform their readers, have accused the commission of proposing another "tax on the middle classes". The reverse is true. Under Mr Dilnot's plan, the middle classes will pay less on average, while the state pays more. His critics fail to acknowledge that the cost of care has already risen to an average of £50,000. As a result, roughly 20,000 people each year are forced to sell their homes to pay for care. The case for reform is unarguable.

Nevertheless, the Chancellor, George Osborne, partly for pragmatic reasons and partly for ideological ones, is reportedly sceptical of the proposals. His supporters point to the Budget deficit, which stood at £143bn last year, and argue that this is no time for the state to be making additional financial commitments. But any new system is unlikely to come into effect until 2015, by which time, if Mr Osborne's calculations are to be believed, much of this deficit will have been eradicated. Short-term fiscal considerations must not act as a barrier to long-term reform.

The Liberal Democrats, who are struggling to achieve greater distinctiveness within the coalition, now have an opportunity to make the principled case for change. The initial cost of Mr Dilnot's proposals - £2bn annually - could be met through the sort of imaginative property taxes that the party has been exploring in recent months. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are rightly pushing for the introduction of capital gains tax on profits from first homes above £1m. As the Labour Party's National Insurance increase in 2002 to boost health funding demonstrated, hypothecated tax rises can prove popular with the electorate.

The last attempt to reach a cross-party consensus on social care was destroyed by the Conservative Party, which cynically attacked Andy Burnham's proposed compulsory levy as a "death tax". Despite the Tories' electioneering, however, the Labour leader Ed Miliband has made a "genuine and open" offer to reach agreement. It is one that David Cameron must take. A united front will be necessary if the proposals are to command public support. A poll by the care homes group Anchor found that just 11 per cent support Mr Dilnot's recommendations. Members of the public, many of whom mistakenly believe that they will pay more under the plan, must be persuaded that reform is in its interests.

The government's clumsy approach to public-sector pension reform has provoked the largest strike action in decades. It must show greater skill if it is to solve the care crisis. The longer ministers prevaricate, the worse the crisis will get. Should the coalition delay reform for political purposes, it will betray a generation of older people.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan