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Burnham's warning on cost of caring for the old

Forcing people to pay in advance is only way to ensure peace of mind, minister says

A crisis in social care for the elderly has made it essential for the Government to force the public to fund growing retirement costs, the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, was warned yesterday.

He told delegates at his high-profile conference on social care yesterday that forcing people to pay for their future care costs may be the only way of giving people "peace of mind" that they will not be left unable to afford their care bills.

Sources inside the meeting said there was consensus among the audience of social-care workers, councils and charities that the time had come for compulsory measures to be brought in to deal with the problem, seen as a looming crisis for Britain's ageing population. There are warnings that major problems will emerge within seven years, with skills shortages also appearing as demand for carers outstrips supply. The Government has yet to finalise its plan to ease the crisis. It has only outlined options including compulsory and voluntary systems of payment. In a memo handed to delegates at yesterday's conference, Mr Burnham said that the most controversial option, a levy on a care patient's estate when they die, would provide peace of mind because everyone would be covered.

A source close to the Health Secretary revealed last night that about 70,000 responses had been made to the Government's consultation on its proposals. The source said Mr Burnham had "absolutely not come to a final decision" on plans to plug the shortfall in funding social care, but added that a compulsory system did have advantages. "The facts are that if everyone pays into the pot of a new system, then the costs come down and there is peace of mind for everyone." A plan to introduce a new system in phases is also being considered.

The Tories refused to attend the conference, designed as a cross-party event, accusing Mr Burnham of using the meeting as a "political ploy" designed to shift focus on plans to impose a "death tax" of up to £20,000 to pay for social care. Last night, Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, called on Mr Burnham to "come clean" on his long-awaited care plan. "We have had 10 years of debate about the need for social care reform but the Labour Government has failed to provide any long-term solutions," he said. "They talk about a National Care Service but won't say how it's to be funded. They plan a death tax in private but put up a smokescreen in public. They say they will publish a White Paper in weeks but the election is imminent."

Charities at the event were privately annoyed that the Tories did not take part. "We welcome the debate on this issue and hope all three political parties will engage in solutions," said Michelle Mitchell, charity director of Age Concern, who was at the summit. "Measures in the short term have become essential."

After the conference, Mr Burnham said: "There is a good degree more consensus across political parties and the care world than people may realise."