SEVEN OR eight years ago, at the height of the housing market's recession, between 50,000 and 70,000 home-owners each year were forced to hand back the keys of their properties.

The combination of repossessions, negative equity and their implications for home-owners became emblematic of how the Thatcherite vision had gone sour for a vast swathe of the UK population. I have no doubt that this played a part in New Labour's 1997 election victory.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and another set of people, up to 40,000 a year, also forced to sell their homes. Not because they can't pay for the home itself, that was probably taken care of a decade or two ago, but because they can't meet the bill for long-term care they need in their old age.

This week, a Royal Commission on long-term care suggested that while it may make sense for old people to pay for the "accommodation" element of care (such as their board and keep), the state ought to cover the cost of the "medical" part of it (nursing care and suchlike).

After all, as the Commission's report puts it so effectively, why should someone aged 75 who suffers a heart attack receive free care on the NHS while another person diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease is obliged to sell up their home to pay for it?

The Government's response is interesting: "We must have more debate on the subject," said Frank Dobson, the Health Minister, as if the Commission's report were not the product of long and patient discussion between scores of experts, including civil servants, insurance companies, welfare organisations and campaign groups, not to mention older people themselves.

Behind Mr Dobson's bluster lies the fact that this Government would rather not stump up pounds 1bn a year on the Commission's proposals. Instead, it is prepared to see helpless pensioners sell the only assets they have to finance their own care.

Why? Because we're talking about old people who are likely to kick the bucket any day now and are therefore considered to be expendable. Clearly, they are not important when compared to a younger generation who might well have quite a few goes left at the ballot box and who could queer New Labour's pitch in one of the many marginal seats they snatched at the last election.

Except that, as increasing numbers of children of older people in need of long-term care are discovering, it is the assets they were expecting to inherit that are being sold off so that Mummy or Daddy can have a nurse in to bathe her or him twice a week. If that happened to me, I think I might get a bit upset with New Labour.

The solution, as clearly outlined in the Royal Commission's report, is to ensure that the care side is met by taxation, leaving the rest to be paid for by pensioners themselves. The bill becomes more manageable and can be met in a combination of ways, including higher pension savings, LTC insurance, income from a PEP, an ISA or whatever.

The important point is to stop pretending that "more discussion" means not taking action now. For most people, a house move takes place on a Saturday. As you read this column, a further 750 people may be taking a last look around the home they lived in most of their lives in and shutting the door behind them forever. How much longer does Mr Dobson want this to go on?

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