Dilnot report: An age old problem with no easy answer

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Image caption Just over £14bn a year is spent by councils on social care

If politics was simply about rousing rhetoric, snappy slogans and popular soundbites, pretty much any fool could do it. (Some will, predictably, respond that any fool does!) But we expect more of our elected representatives than that.

As an old radio colleague of mine said to me some 25 years ago, we require them "to grasp the nettle through the window of opportunity".

Or as JFK put it in 1961, politicians "must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions".

How we ensure that our elderly live out their twilight years with dignity and security is one of those difficult issues. There are no easy or quick solutions and answering the challenge necessitates some quite profound reflection on our values.

After decades dodging the question and allowing a climate of fear and uncertainty to develop within England's social care sector, the coalition government asked the economist Andrew Dilnot to bring his not-inconsiderable intellect to it.

When I met him recently, the first thing he said to me was this: "We are four times richer in real terms than we were just after the war."

That is his starting point for the debate: we can afford to care for our elderly - it is a matter of priorities, not affordability.

Mr Dilnot estimates that, at current levels of need, his proposals will require England to devote just 0.25% of public spending on provision for the elderly. "Do we care enough?" he asks.

It is, though, a matter of who pays - and that's where the politics starts to get toxic.

Where should the balance lie between state and the individual? The Dilnot Commission's solution is creative and clever. But in the end someone has to fork out and there will be endless argument as to what is fair.

It is the time for political courage not political cowardice - grasping that stinging nettle through the open window of opportunity.

The debate has been framed in terms of state v individual - but I do wonder whether there is a third element here, an aspect to which other countries and cultures pay more attention: community.

The responsibility of families, friends and neighbours to care for the elderly is barely discussed, as though looking after the old is none of our business.

As he was finalising today's report, I spoke to Andrew Dilnot and others for Radio 4's World Tonight programme. Do have a listen. My investigation began in Denham Garden Village.