The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, faces a growing backlash after quietly shelving a key Tory manifesto commitment to cap care costs for the elderly, as experts claimed that the policy fiasco has cost taxpayers up to £100m.
Hunt has announced that the plan to limit care bills from next year to £72,000 for the over-65s and for younger adults with disabilities has been delayed until 2020 – despite the fact it was trumpeted by the Conservatives in the runup to the general election.
While Hunt insisted that his department was still fully committed to the policy – which ministers had claimed would prevent old people having to sell their homes to pay care bills – most experts believe that it has, effectively, been abandoned.
The announcement – and the manner in which it was made in a written statement to the House of Lords on a day the Commons was not sitting – has infuriated the Tory MP and chair of the House of Commons health select committee Sarah Wollaston, who has asked Hunt to explain his about-turn by this Thursday at the latest.
She has also told him, in a strongly worded letter, that he will be grilled before her committee in September about how and why plans contained in legislation that went through parliament before the election had been put off so abruptly, with so many questions left hanging in the air.
Wollaston told the Observer: “At the heart of this are the very serious unanswered questions for those families who are facing catastrophic care costs who thought this issue had been resolved.
“This was a key part of the Care Act legislation in the last parliament. It is very disappointing that it has been shelved.”
In her letter to Hunt last week, Wollaston said it was “regrettable” that the decision had been made on a day the Commons was not sitting, and the day after a major speech by the secretary of state in which he had made no mention of the change.
Wollaston, who is a GP, has also asked the health secretary to clarify key details of the plans, such as what ministers intended to do about the fact that, under the proposals, people who paid for their own care would end up subsidising those whose costs had been met by local authorities.
Experts say huge sums of public money have been wasted on fees for employing the top advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi to promote the policy, the development of IT systems to run it, and the cost of running public consultations.
James Lloyd, director of the Strategic Society Centre thinktank, said: “I would estimate the ‘capped cost’ reforms have cost the taxpayer between £50m-£100m to date.
“This is a lot of money at a time that councils are cutting support packages for the most vulnerable members of their communities. And it is a lot of money when the problems associated with the reforms were readily apparent back in July 2011.
“Up and down England, 152 local authorities have been training frontline staff and managers in relation to the reforms and developing IT systems.”
The Department of Health confirmed that Saatchi & Saatchi had been used, and that the company had had to amend its promotion material to reflect the changes in policy.
Richard Humphries, assistant director of The King’s Fund, an independent health policy charity, said: “Postponement to the end of this parliament makes it almost certain that these reforms will not happen. In effect they have been abandoned, not postponed.”
Brian Tabor, co-founder of Carematters, a financial advice firm that specialises in issues for older people, said that his firm had had a “significant increase” in calls since the care-cap announcement on 17 July.
“People had been thinking, ‘They are going to cap my fees, I don’t need to worry’,” he said. “Now people with an ageing parent in care are suddenly concerned, thinking ‘How am I going to manage that extra cost?’”
In their election manifesto the Tories specifically said that they had introduced a cap on care costs, adding that “no one will have to sell their home to pay for care”.
Liz Kendall MP, shadow care minister, said: “This is a shameful broken promise from David Cameron, and devastating news for older people and their families who have been trying to plan for the future. Not only have the Tories failed to tackle the crisis in social care, David Cameron is now going back on the already watered-down proposals to protect people from catastrophic costs of care at the end of their lives.
“As we clearly saw in the budget, this is a government that gives with one hand and takes with another. While they found the money to pay for an inheritance tax cut for the most well-off, they are rowing back on their manifesto promise to cap the care costs for the many.
“The Tories owe people an apology for this latest failure to sort out social care.”
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