Leading article: The depressing politics of elderly care

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An attempt to forge a cross-party consensus on care for elderly people in England disintegrated this week. A government Green Paper on the subject last year floated various ideas for extending care. And one of the options for paying for such an extension was a compulsory levy on estates after death.

This week the Conservatives launched an attack on Labour's "death tax" in a new poster campaign. Labour and the Liberal Democrats accused the Tories of breaking the consensus. But the Conservatives deny there was never an agreement – and claim a report that Labour was preparing to back the compulsory levy in its manifesto justified their intervention.

Leaving aside the finger pointing, it is interesting that there were cross-party talks on this subject in the first place. All three parties clearly sensed they were vulnerable on social care. The present means-tested care system is deeply unpopular, especially the requirement for some elderly people to sell their homes to pay for care. And local councils – controlled by all three parties – have been tightening the qualification threshold.

Yet politics as usual has reasserted itself. The Conservatives' suggested alternative are incentives for voluntary insurance in the form of a one-off, up-front, payment of about £8,000 at age 65. They suggest this would cover individuals if they need residential care later on in life. But the cost projections for this are dubious. And they do not say what would happen to the uninsured.

There is no reason why care for elderly people should be exempt from the usual partisan battles. After all, with our society rapidly ageing, this is one of the most important issues facing this country. The overall cost of elderly care is projected to double in the next two decades. Dealing with this challenge equitably is surely the very essence of politics.

Yet it is more than a decade since a Royal Commission, headed by Sir Stewart Sutherland, laid out the urgent need for decisive political leadership on long-term social care for elderly people. What is so depressing about this latest squabble is not the breakdown of cross-party consensus, but the fact that all the various policies on the table are still so flaky.

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