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Michelle Mitchell: Whoever wins election, care must come first

Unless care is protected from cuts, a funding black hole of £1.75bn will open up

The White Paper was a brave attempt to put a serious issue on to the public agenda. It deserves a considered response from the other political parties, not a knee-jerk, point-scoring reaction.

Almost everyone can agree with the principle of a new national system that guarantees more flexible support, earlier help, and an end to the postcode lottery. And as long as it is fair and affordable, offering free support to everyone who needs it, whatever their means, is a really welcome ambition.

If the plans are implemented, by the end of the next parliament fewer people who need care will go without, more will be able to stay in their own home and those with the highest needs in residential care and the community will have their care paid for.

There remain unanswered questions about how much it's all going to cost and how we're going to pay for it. In particular the Government must say where all the money needed to fund the first wave of reforms up to 2015 will come from.

Over the next five years it will cost billions more to fund growing demand in care services, end the postcode lottery and implement the new national entitlements for free care for those with the highest needs.

In the meantime, there are some really big and important political milestones to get over. The first hurdle is the looming general election. All the parties are preparing the battlegrounds on which they want to fight for votes. As part of that, we look forward to all of them setting out positive pitches on the future of care. But they also need to avoid boxing themselves in by rejecting sound proposals, just to draw political dividing lines.

The next hurdle is the fiscal crisis. Whoever is in government after May, there will be an urgent spending review, possibly as early as the summer. Spending cuts are almost inevitable and local authorities, who run social care, seem to be very vulnerable.

Our research shows that unless older people's care is protected from these government-wide spending cuts, a funding black hole of £1.75bn will open up within the next two years. 500,000 fewer older people would have access to services, and the numbers of people receiving help at home would halve. Cuts on that scale would totally undermine the vision set out in the White Paper. All parties must promise that care will be protected.

For all these potential pitfalls, yesterday's announcement was a landmark moment. The White Paper's incremental reforms mark the start of a journey, and the end point is still not entirely clear. But it is a journey we must begin this year, for the sake of millions of vulnerable people, whoever wins the election.

Michelle Mitchell is charity director of Age Concern and Help the Aged