The row over reform of care for the elderly escalated yesterday as Labour and the Tories accused each other of sabotaging attempts to reach a cross-party consensus.
After appeals from charities for an end to the political mud-slinging, Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, called a non-partisan care conference to tackle the vexed issue this week. But his invitation to the Tories to take part was spurned by Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, who accused Labour of considering a 10 per cent death duty on estates to pay for care.
Mr Burnham hit back that the Tories were spreading "scare stories" on an issue that affected the most vulnerable people in society.
A television debate featuring the two men slumped into claim, counter-claim and recriminations over the failure of cross-party talks on elderly care reform.
The Health Secretary sidestepped claims that he had confronted Mr Lansley in the Commons last week and accused his Tory counterpart of having "bloody shafted" him.
"Well, I'm trying to keep my temper here," he said, when asked about it on BBC1's The Politics Show. The row erupted last week when it was reported the Government was strongly considering a £20,000 compulsory death duty to pay for universal care for the elderly.
Labour was furious when the Tories subsequently put up posters around the country featuring a gravestone with the slogan "RIP off".
Mr Burnham has dismissed the possibility of a "flat rate" levy but admits that he is considering a compulsory arrangement as part of Gordon Brown's planned new National Care Service.
The Tories accused ministers of looking at a 10 per cent levy on estates, on top of any inheritance tax liabilities, upon death. Ipsos Mori has been employed to test opinion on the idea.
But Mr Burnham insisted: "There are no decisions taken on this issue. We've got options on the table, we need to explore those options."
He added that the Tories' "negative campaigning" went beyond the "RIP Off" poster about care reform.
"There are negative, nasty campaigns being run on doorsteps up and down the country on benefit reform. People are being scared on issues to do with benefits by Andrew and the Conservatives. And I would say this is not an issue for scare stories and negative campaigning. It involves vulnerable people and we need to remember that at all times in this debate."
The Tories sought to turn the tables on Labour over the breakdown of previous talks between Mr Burnham, Mr Lansley and Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman.
They circulated copies of a local Labour leaflet, apparently distributed last week, which accused the Tories of planning to scrap "free help at home to those who most need it". But Mr Lamb, who appeared at the same time on The Politics Show, claimed Mr Lansley was responsible for the failure of attempts at a consensus. He said the Tory frontbencher had agreed that a compulsory levy was an option that had to be considered. "Andrew's not being straight with people on this, because it was specifically recognised that there were compulsory and voluntary options, and Andrew included that in his own draft statement of principles, and that's one of the key issues that we have to resolve," Mr Lamb said.
"Then it suddenly becomes the issue that results in the Tories abandoning the process and going for a very aggressive form of advertising."
He added: "I believe this has been under planning for some time and I think Andrew was genuinely trying to engage in discussion with the two of us about a really important reform.
"And I think he's been undermined by (Tory communications chief) Andy Coulson, David Cameron or whoever, and there is a divide within the Conservative Party which has prevented Andrew pursuing what was a really important attempt to build consensus."
Mr Lansley insisted that was "not true", telling the programme: "They (Labour) wanted a compulsory levy – a death tax – and I don't," he said.
Care charities and the Government's ageism tsar, Dame Joan Bakewell, strongly criticised the party political point-scoring this weekend.
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