Burnham seeks new consensus on elderly care

The Health Secretary tried to cool the row over care for the elderly today by calling a non-partisan conference to address the issue this week.

After a week of increasingly bitter exchanges between Labour and the Tories, Andy Burnham urged opposition parties to put a stop to "negative campaigning" on the highly emotive subject.

Care charities and the Government's ageism tsar, Dame Joan Bakewell, strongly criticised the party political point-scoring of recent days.

Mr Burnham said he would be holding a conference this week to which the other parties, as well as charities and local authorities, would be invited to discuss elderly care funding.

The move comes after cross-party talks designed to reach a consensus between Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats broke down in acrimony last week.

Mr Burnham said he was now "more determined than ever to work with others to see if we can find a consensus".

"I will extend an invitation to the main political parties to put aside partisan campaigns and put the national interest first," he said.

"I hope they will accept it and engage seriously in this debate that the country needs to have.

"If we fail to act, we will fail many vulnerable and elderly people who will continue to have to dig deep into their bank accounts to pay for care.

"In return, I ask that any negative campaigning is suspended. It is not right to use scare stories on an issue that affects so many vulnerable people."

Eighteen charities joined forces yesterday to call for a "serious debate" about improving care for the elderly, admonishing the parties for their squabbling.

The health spokesmen of the three main parties had privately discussed the issue and even agreed some shared principles on it.

But attempts at a consensus broke down and the Tories accused Labour of planning a £20,000 "death tax" to pay for social care.

A Conservative campaign poster featuring a gravestone with the slogan "RIP off" was denounced by Mr Burnham as "grubby and desperate".

There were angry scenes in the Commons when Gordon Brown and David Cameron went head-to-head on Wednesday.

Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary of State, accused the Tories of driving a "wrecking ball" through the talks in a bid for short-term political advantage.

Charities including Carers UK, the National Care Forum, Age Concern, Help the Aged, Alzheimer's Society and Macmillan Cancer Support today urged the parties not to reduce the issue to "election soundbites" and "poster slogans".

In a letter to The Times, they said: "The vexed question of who pays is unquestionably difficult, and the solutions may be controversial - but the costs of failing to act are simply too great to allow the debate needed to be drowned out by party-political squabbling."

They added: "We are in danger of seeing this most important of debates become reduced to election soundbites and poster slogans. (The care) situation is unsustainable, and we must have a serious debate that delivers a long-term solution.

"It is premature to rule out future proposals to score a political point... social care reform needs to be an issue of consensus. We need a care settlement that delivers long-term solutions that will not be reversed by changes in government or in the economic climate."

The Government's ageism tsar has accused the Tories of "telling lies" about the elderly care plans, but blamed Gordon Brown for turning the issue into a political "circus".

Dame Joan, who was appointed as an independent "champion" for older people in 2008, described the Westminster row as "shameful".

"It's highly regrettable that political interests have stepped in where a really serious issue was being discussed by serious men with the interests of older people at heart," Dame Joan said.

"The fact that it has become a political circus is shameful."

The Tories stepped up their criticism of the Government after it emerged that pollsters had been employed to test the idea of a 10% tax on estates to fund elderly care.

Mr Burnham ruled out the prospect of a "flat rate" levy, but the Tories accuse him of keeping open the option of some kind of graduated compulsory tax.

That view was bolstered by the discovery that Ipsos Mori had been employed to test public opinion on the idea of a 10% levy on estates, on top of inheritance tax.

Philip Hammond, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said: "Last week Gordon Brown refused to deny that Labour were working on plans for the death tax - now we see they are actively canvassing opinion at public expense."

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