Leading article: Care is not a luxury

Despite the claim there is no money, the Government has underspent by £6.7bn

Cut out this leading article out and keep it with your letters from the Department of Work and Pensions to look at in decades to come when you care enough about old age to concentrate on such questions. On second thoughts, because you never know when dementia will start to take its toll, perhaps you had better read it now.

Most of us will be lucky, and will enjoy reasonable health until shortly before we die. But a growing minority will need expensive help for many years towards the end of our lives.

The cost of such care is such that, as we report today, many local councils are tightening their criteria. In two years, 7,000 old and disabled people have been told they no longer qualify for help. At the same time, central government announces a small increase in funding for 6,000 supported housing places – while all the big decisions are being put in the drawer with the DWP letters, and ministers tell themselves, "I'll look at that later."

Their motives are understandable, just as are the motives of most people who prefer not to think about their long-term care. But we know that these are questions that ought to be dealt with now. How much should the taxpayer contribute to elderly care? In answering this question, there are hard choices between equity, risk and incentives to responsible saving.

Thanks to the clear-thinking work of Andrew Dilnot, the former director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, however, there is already a consensus on the design of a fair system. The Dilnot report, published a year ago, said that everyone with assets of more than £100,000 would have to pay the first £35,000 of the costs of caring for themselves in old age, with the rest paid for from general taxation. If such a system were adopted, it would become cost-effective for most people to insure themselves for the £35,000 costs.

The Labour Party supports the Dilnot plan, so what is to stop the coalition from signing up to cross-party agreement? Inevitably, it is a matter of money. Mr Dilnot's scheme would cost the taxpayer £1.7bn a year, rising to £3.6bn a year by 2025. These are significant but not vast sums. Something similar is affordable in Scotland, after all.

Officially, the Government's line is that spending decisions are a matter for the next spending review, to take place next year or early the year after. Unofficially, its line is to quote Liam Byrne, Labour's last chief secretary to the Treasury – "There's no money left" – and to point out that public spending currently exceeds revenue by about £120bn a year.

The Independent on Sunday does not, of course, accept the pace of deficit reduction set out by George Osborne, and believes a slower path towards balancing the books would, paradoxically, balance them sooner and with a higher level of employment. However, the Chancellor has the scope to pay for the Dilnot plan even on his own terms.

Last week, figures showed the Government had underspent by £6.7bn in the year to April. So the taxpayer could afford to pay for care of the elderly and keep to Mr Osborne's plan to cut the deficit.

It may be that there are other calls on public spending that are more deserving, but now is the time to weigh up the competing demands. This newspaper's view is that, to ensure the fair spread of risk, care for the elderly should be near the top of the list for extra spending. Collectively, we can afford it; individually, we may need it.