Page last updated at 06:30 GMT, Saturday, 3 October 2009 07:30 UK

Q&A: Social care plans

Elderly people
The current system is criticised for being unfair

The political parties in England have unveiled differing proposals for a revamp of the social care system. But why is it needed and what does it mean?

What does social care cover?

The system includes everything from the support people receive with washing and dressing to stay in their own homes through to full-time residential care.

The majority is provided to the elderly who can no longer look after themselves, but it also includes the support given to those with disabilities.

The care is provided by local authority staff as well as private care homes and agencies and charities. In England, access to the care is means-tested.

Why does it need changing?

If there is one thing everyone is agreed on, it is that the current social care system is failing.

Councils have started tightening their eligibility criteria for those entitled to care in recent years as more and more people are asking for help.

And with the means-testing threshold set so low - the £23,500 limit effectively excludes everyone who owns a house - thousands of people each year are forced to sell their homes if they need residential care.

With the ageing population the situation is only going to get worse.

There are currently four people of working age population for every person retired, by 2050, there will only be two.

It means that unless there is billions of pounds of extra investment, the system is likely to fall apart.

What has the government proposed?

The government is proposing extending the state's contribution to everyone in a scheme it calls the National Care Service.

Its proposals would affect 350,000 people who require assistance with every aspect of day-to-day living - from dressing to cooking.

It would not apply to those already in residential care, but in principle help people to remain in their homes.

In return the government wants to bring the public on board as direct contributors to the system.

Ministers ruled out raising taxes and instead put forward three options whereby the state provided a basic package and the public contributed the rest.

This could either be done through paying any costs themselves, taking out insurance or introducing a compulsory fee.

They said the bill for residential accommodation, which is often cited as the reason people are forced to sell their homes, can be deferred until death when it is taken from a person's estate.

What are the Tories proposing?

The party is offering a voluntary one-off fee of £8,000 at age 65 to waive residential fees for life.

It says the scheme could be operated by existing insurers using branded products, with the government setting out basic rules and safeguards to ensure it remained financially viable over the long term.

They insist the voluntary scheme would be self-financing as only 20% of those paying in would get ill enough to have to draw on the scheme, and say no public money would be needed to operate it.

What has been the reaction to the plans?

Many of the charities and campaign groups expressed delight that proposals have been put forward at all.

The government's green paper was nearly a year overdue.

Many still have concerns. Charities, in particular, are concerned about the issue of compulsory fees and there are still big question marks over funding.

The government's proposals did not mention money - partly because any changes would be so far away that it was impossible to say what the budget would be.

Nonetheless, unless there is a significant increase in investment the fact that everyone will receive some level of free social care could mean the poorest may see the support given to them shrink.

The new system may also lead to a tightening of the criteria used to determine whether people should get access to the system in the first place.

This has happened in Scotland since free personal care was introduced and means only those with the most severe needs get help.

What is more, the right to defer accommodation costs would require funding at least in the short-term until the state gets access to the proceeds from estates.

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