Ministers will publish plans for social care next year
A review of the social care system in England has added weight to calls for an entire revamp of the system.
The Commission for Social Care Inspection was asked by ministers to look into what has been dubbed the rationing of social services.
Councils are increasingly only offering support to those with the most acute needs. The watchdog said it was unfair and consistent standards were needed.
Ministers will publish plans for social care reform early next year.
Public and professionals alike have been calling for this as the system in England is struggling to cope with the rising demand.
Councils have responded by starting to restrict access to services such as home care, day service and respite care.
On last count, two thirds of local authorities only offered this support to those with substantial needs, which includes people needing round-the-clock help.
Experts predict that unless the system is changed or extra money pumped in no council will be helping out those with low or moderate level needs within a few years.
The commission said the way councils were using eligibility criteria was "unfair" and "bewildering" to people, while at the same time pointing out funding was inadequate.
The report acknowledged the government was planning a revamp of social care and called for the future system to have clear and consistent processes.
Guidelines do currently exist about the application of eligibility criteria, but these are voluntary.
The watchdog also said it was important people in need were given a thorough explanation of the social care system on first contact as many struggled to understand what support was available.
Commission chairman Dame Denise Platt said: "While most people accept that not everything can be provided by the state, they want a fairer and clearer system."
Lizzie McLennan, of Help the Aged, added a revamp was urgently needed.
"This report confirms what we have known for some time – the social care system is confusing, scary and failing to meet people's needs."
The Department of Health is planning to publish a green paper on social care next year.
One of the systems understood to be under consideration is a form of co-payments whereby the state guarantees a minimum level of care which could then be topped up by the individual.
Social services is currently means-tested in England, as it is in Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own system where personal care is free.
Care services minister Phil Hope said: "This report makes a valuable contribution on how to make the system of social care funding fairer and more transparent."
But Martin Green, chief executive of English Community Care Association, said: "We cannot wait for the green paper.
"We need action now and if necessary some transitional approaches."