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In a surprise move, the UK Coalition government has announced its intention to implement in full the proposals of the last year’s Dilnot Commission on social care. The Prime Minister, it emerges, is personally insisting that the Dilnot Report’s proposals are passed into legislation, despite resistance from the Chancellor George Osborne.

The Commission reported in July 2011, and its suggestions for reforming the funding system for care of the frail elderly, both within and outside residential homes, were initially considered by the Government to be too expensive. Under the system proposed, eligibility criteria would be standardised (at present there is variation in coverage from local councils), and any individual would be expected to contribute a maximum of £35,000 towards the costs of their care, with the state meeting any further costs for the rest of their lifetime. At present, recipients of care are expected to sell their homes to fund their own care. Furthermore, pensioners with assets of less than £100,000 would now have completely free care.

The proposals were welcomed by the opposition Labour party, disability rights groups and Age UK, the largest pensioners’ charity. However the costs of the changes were estimated at £1.7 billion, just when the government is struggling with a failing £90 billion cuts programme.

Anonymous figures within the government have said to the press that Cameron is now in favour of the idea as a matter of “legacy”. Although it may be a cynical political stunt, it is rare that the Conservative Party is to be found advocating social progress, and so it should be applauded. It seemed for a while that the Treasury would succeed in reducing state subsidy to a level that would have left the problems caused by hefty care home fees unsolved.

However, there is the matter of where the Coalition will find the £1.7 billion a year to fund these proposals. In Westminster rumours are circulating that the funding will be deducted from the general National Health Service budget. The NHS is facing real terms spending cuts already, and any further reductions will be noticed by patients as waiting lists grow ever longer, staff become ever more overstretched and hospital buildings become ever shabbier. Instead, a reversal of cuts to Corporation Tax or the marginal Income Tax band would be more than sufficient to meet the new funding requirements.

The author of the proposals, Andrew Dilnot, has warned that the timetable for the changes is far too lax. They would only come into effect in 2017, leaving 40,000 pensioners a year still being forced to sell their homes until they are introduced. Unfortunately, few have noticed this major problem yet, at what is potentially massive human cost.

But if NHS and Social Care budgets are seen by some as interchangeable, does this not mean that they view the causes as equally worthy of state funding? In which case, why does the principle of a universal, free service apply to one and not the other? The British welfare state was founded on and should run on the principle that all contribute when they can, as taxpayers, and in return can expect full assistance when they need it – as summarised by “from the cradle to the grave”. Our public services must operate on that basis, and so free education and free healthcare should be complemented by free social care.

In short, if schoolchildren and hospital patients do not pay, care home residents should not be expected to either. The government can and should go further, making social care entirely free of charge. Once the matter of cost is no longer a shadow hanging over the elderly, we are free to focus on their best interests. That should take precedence over matters of profit.

BY: Jack Darrant