Time bomb of Britain's elderly is no longer ticking so loudly

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The Independent Online
Assumptions about a "ticking time bomb" over the growing cost of the elderly have been exploded by government figures.

Slipped out in a statistical report to a Commons committee, they show that the Government has scaled down the expected cost of the elderly from 1 per cent of expenditure on personal social services in 1996-97 to 0.4 per cent in 1997-98. The Department of Health estimated in a report published earlier this year that the rise would be 0.7 per cent.

The figures "show considerably slower growth in the elderly population than earlier projections", said the report to the Select Committee on Health.

Hugh Bayley, a Labour member of the committee and expert on health economics, said the admission that the "time bomb" did not exist undermined the Government's claims that a switch to private insurance policies was needed to pay for

long-term care for the elderly.

"This shows there is no demographic time bomb," he said. "If there is the political will to provide long-term care for the elderly, the state can continue to provide it.

"It should be possible to provide long-term care facross the country with a service that does not depend on your needs or where you live."

The committee said in June that the suggestions of a "crisis" in paying for long-term care were "downright alarmist". It said the problems were real but manageable.

The Government on Monday rejected the criticism by the committee, which is chaired by the senior Tory MP Marion Roe, that free long-term care on the NHS was available in some areas, but not in others.

The Government has shelved its Bill to launch a private-insurance-based solution to the plight of many elderly people who are being forced to sell their homes to gain entitlement to long-term care on the state, which is means-tested.

The reduction in the Government's estimates of the rising cost of the elderly on personal social services could also boost pensioners' demands for increases in the real value of state pensions.

In a separate move, Harriet Harman, the shadow social security secretary, will today challenge the Government to use its fraud Bill to ensure that 700,000 of the poorest pensioners are given benefits worth an average pounds 14 a week to which they are entitled but which many fail to claim.

Under the Bill, social security officers will be given the power to cross- check data on benefit payments, VAT returns and tax returns to check on fraud. Ms Harman says the same powers should be used to help those who are failing to draw the money.

Her office is engaged in a cross-departmental survey of relevant information technology and she will seek an amendment to the Bill to extend the cross- checking powers to the social security entitlements.

Ms Harman is also meeting pensioners' leaders, including Jack Jones and Baroness Castle, over their campaign for improved state pensions. She will propose using pensioners' "juries" and polling under a Labour administration to keep government more in touch with the needs of the elderly.

The falling cost

How cost of the old on social services is now projected to plunge after a steady rise

1991-92 1.1%

1992-93 1.0%

1993-94 0.9%

1994-95 1.2%

1995-96 1.3%

1996-97 1.0%

1997-98 0.4%