Magazine article The Spectator

Middle-Class Welfare Scroungers

Magazine article The Spectator

Middle-Class Welfare Scroungers

Article excerpt

THERE's a horror story doing the rounds at a dinner party near you. Rupert and Samantha, who are not known for discussing the health of elderly relatives, are devastated by the news that a beloved granny has developed Alzheimer's. This strong character, who they had imagined would carry on as her sprightly self well into her eighties before succumbing to a quick death, now faces years of debilitating decline. And, as If the dribbling and muttering, the forgetting of familiar faces, were not bad enough, the last thing she will know before her mind descends into a haze is the indignity of having to sell her house to pay the nursing-home bills.

If there is an equivalent of the midnight knock in our otherwise free and wealthy society, it is the local authority's social workers arriving to tell us that the family home must go on the market. Someone who has never got over this experience is Lucy, whose mother's former council house in Plymouth had to be sold to meet the costs of her nursinghome care after she fell ill with Alzheimer's. 'She was a thrifty lady who had saved all her life,' says Lucy. 'She had lived in the house since the 1950s, and only in recent years had she managed to buy it. She did all the redecorating herself. But, while people without any assets have everything paid for by the local authority, we had to find my mother a nursing home and sell the house to pay for the fees. It's not fair; people with Alzheimer's are treated like second-class citizens.'

It is a fear to which our politicians have responded. All three main parties went into the election promising to put an end to the horrible injustice of well-heeled elderly people - 40,000 of them a year - having to sell houses in which they are no longer able to live in order to pay their nursing-home bills. Under the current system, nursing-home residents who have assets in excess of L18,500 are obliged to pay their full nursing-home fees; only when their assets fall below that level is the local authority required to help out. If they have no dependants, and do not have a spouse still living with them, this means that their house has to be sold.

It is a straightforward means test, but one that has proved very unpopular among those whose parents have suffered long years of infirmity before death and who consequently believe they have been robbed of their inheritance. Aware that he needed to attract middle-class votes to win the 1997 general election, Tony Blair spied an opportunity in this anger. That elderly people should have to sell their homes to pay nursing-home fees, he said in a speech in 1996, was an 'obscenity'.

There followed a Royal Commission in 1999, which resulted earlier this year in the Health and Social Care Act. When it comes into effect this October, all residents of old peoples' homes will have the nursing element of their fees paid by the state. The remaining fees - board and lodging, and 'personal care' such as help with washing and dressing - will still have to be paid, but no one need part with their bungalow or manor house in order to do so: should their house be their only asset, they will be able to defer paying their fees until after their death, even if that is 20 years later. In the meantime, the local authority will have to pick up the tab.

If this sounds less like an attempt to improve the lot of elderly people than a blatant appeal to the greed of their children, it is. Don't be surprised if you see a large number of bungalows and seaside villas being boarded up over the next few months as the middle classes try to wriggle out of paying granny's nursing-home bills. With house prices rising at 10 per cent a year, those who defer the aged relative's payments until death stand to boost their inheritance considerably. The deferred-payment scheme amounts to an interest-free loan to the children, paid for by taxpayers. The cost of the scheme, according to the government, will be L85 million over the next three years. …

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