Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, said the long-term care system for old people was "confused" and "bewildering" and many people were anxious about how it would be paid for.
"There has been a lottery in long-term care just as there has been a lottery in health care. The Government is determined to tackle both."
Mr Milburn, opening a debate on the issue, said the National Care Standards Commission, which would ensure "consistently high standards", would be set up by the spring of 2002. "For the first time there will be a single independent national watchdog responsible for ensuring high standards of care wherever it is provided and whoever provides it."
The commission would have the power to investigate complaints and ensure that clear information on care services was provided to consumers.
His announcement followed revelations in a report by the Royal College of Nursing that thousands of elderly people are being denied free NHS nursing care by the arbitrary and illegal application of rules that require them to pay.
A survey said almost nine out of ten health authorities in England and Wales were operating the rules governing eligibility for free NHS long- term care in a way that was likely or highly likely to be ruled unlawful by the courts.
There were also wide inconsistencies between health authorities in who or what they would pay for - leading to a "postcode lottery" in long-term care.
But the Health Secretary said a crucial recommendation by the Royal Commission for long-term care, namely that consideration should be given to providing nursing care free, whether delivered in the NHS or in private nursing homes, was still under review.
Mr Milburn disclosed that ministers were exploring the effect of possible changes to the residential charging rules and reviewing policy and guidance on continuing health care. The work should help to inform the Government's final decision on the future of funding long-term care, after the conclusion of the spending review next summer. For too long, old age had been seen as a problem and standards of care had been too variable, he said.
Mr Milburn said the Government was publishing a new charter for long- term care so people could get more information about health and housing authorities and social services.
But Philip Hammond, a Tory health spokesman, dismissed Mr Milburn's pledges as "a smokescreen of minimalist announcements and heated up reannouncements". He said 100,000 more homes had been "forcibly" sold for provision of long-term care in the two and a half years since the Government had set up the Royal Commission.
"The truth is that the Government set up the Royal Commission expecting it to propose a low public spending solution. But, unfortunately for the Government, the Royal Commission did not play ball."Reuse content