No more winter fuel allowance! No triple lock on my state pension! At 69, if I was looking to my own interests, nothing would be more likely to send me to the polls for Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May’s manifesto hit on the elderly. As a peer I do not have a vote but I do have an opinion: and two measures announced today—means-testing winter fuel payments and committing to a pensions “double lock”—seem to me to be in the national interest.
It is a hard change of mindset for those on the left but it has to be said. Most elderly people are not poor. Most poor people are not elderly. Many (I am one) have houses that have soared in value; mortgages paid off or nearly so; private pensions from a more expansive era; and ever-diminishing needs to buy things, as the things we already have will see us out. So to give non-means tested benefits to pensioners to a large extent transfers resources to the “haves.” The taxes to pay for them—currently £2bn for the winter fuel allowance—likely hits the less well off as well as Corbyn’s fat cats. With state expenditure bound to remain constrained, it makes good sense to save money on these inessentials.
But the most eye-catching Tory proposal is the one to make people use the equity from their homes to pay for care they get in those homes. This was no doubt snatched from the internal musings of the government as it prepared for its promised autumn green paper on paying for care. Be in no doubt: this is a politically bold proposal. When Labour proposed free care to be paid for from inheritance tax, the Tories flooded the nation with posters about the so-called death tax, in the process torpedoing the all-party talks in progress about how to pay for care.
This proposal should not be dismissed on the grounds it will be unpopular. Every way of paying for care is unpopular. Most people hope to die before they need care. Many people look forward to their children inheriting their wealth, much of it housing wealth.
But why on earth should those who can afford care be subsidised? What is it about housing wealth that makes it inappropriate that is should be tapped to pay for care? Why is it alright to make those with really quite limited non-housing wealth—£23,500—pay for their care in full when those whose wealth happens to be tucked away in housing get it for free?
There are three important caveats however. First, this is not a substitute for the cap on care costs proposed by the Dilnot Commission in the last parliament, accepted then by the government, and then unceremoniously postponed until 2020.
Secondly, the Conservatives are promising that no-one will have to sell their homes to pay for care. Heard it before? Yes you have, from the Conservative government which actually implemented by law the so-called universal deferred payment scheme which was supposed to offer that protection. Local authorities would offer loans to everyone with care costs, funded by the eventual sale of their homes after their death. But the rats got at it. Far from being universal, you have to run down your other assets to £23,500 before you are eligible. Research by the think-tank Reform shows that this castrated deferred payment has failed to get off the ground.
Thirdly and finally none of these pledges will do anything about the central care problem: the swinging cuts to the services people receive from the state. The number of elderly people is soaring. Local authority budgets are being chopped. Result: misery, for many old people and their families. Nothing in the Tory manifesto promised to deal with that.