HEALTH Secretary Andy Burnham last Monday put the issue of how to fund care for the elderly on the back burner by ruling out legislation to introduce a “death tax” — or better named inheritance tax because only the living can pay taxes — within the next parliament. He also said he would introduce a cap on what the elderly have to pay for themselves for residential care to two years. If they survive beyond two years all care will be free.
The issue of how to fund care for the elderly has vexed all three major parties but there are some myths we must expose. The first is that this country cannot afford to support a large, ageing population.
We live in a modern, highly industrialised society with highly capitalised means of production and technology is increasing productivity all the time. That means one hour of work today produces on average many times the amount of wealth that it did in our grandparents’ time. We create enough wealth in our society that if it was equably distributed we could all get by very nicely even if only a fraction of the population was engaged in regular full-time work. Or put another way, any worker who puts in a couple of decades of full-time work has created for society more than enough wealth to fund a decent living for themselves for a long and happy old age.
The problem is that the wealth is not equably distributed. The vast majority of it ends up in the hands of capitalists, bankers and landlords who employ people to make sure they pay as little tax as possible on their vast fortunes. They are the problem, not workers who live a bit longer than their parents.
Another myth is that people living longer puts a bigger strain on care services. The truth is that for most a longer life means staying healthier for longer. A high percentage of people in their 60s and 70s and even older may have developed a few more conditions but are still generally able and happy to look after themselves. It just means that the stage of their lives where they become dependent on care is postponed from their 60s and 70s to their 80s and 90s — but it doesn’t actually get any longer — when Andy Burnham set the cap on paying at two years, he knew the average and knew that the Government will not have to pick up too many bills for people surviving beyond two years in care.
The Government would do better to invest more in promoting gentle exercise and fitness among those in late middle age to prevent the conditions that eventually make people dependent on care.
In an ideal world, a socialist world, the wealth produced by society would be used to fund all the care that the elderly need and then it would be possible to have a debate about retirement that was not driven by the need to count every penny of Government spending.
Some occupations: mining, deep sea fishing, steel working, farm labour, nursing and fire-fighting are physically exhausting but contribute enormously to society and deserve and demand an early retirement age — as happened in the former Soviet Union.
In other occupations people feel the need to slow down and relax more from their 50s onwards. Retirement should be a gradual process, working for progressively fewer hours or days each week but carrying on working a few hours a week long past the current 65-year deadline. Humans are social beings who need the company of their fellow workers, not a dramatic change from working 48 hours a week to suddenly being stuck at home alone.
But this would need the staggered introduction of pension support and is a debate that cannot be had under capitalism where governments are perpetually seeking cuts and where an older person hanging on to their job means a young person staying on the dole.
The right-wing press and the Tory party are expressing horror at the idea of the so-called death tax. But inheritance taxes have been a part of life since feudal times; they are nothing new and they will not greatly affect families on low incomes. This is a tax that will sting the richest hardest and, just as they did when Lloyd George introduced death taxes for filthy rich landowners, it is the filthy rich who are wailing that there will be a tax on the vast wealth — produced by the labour of others — they expect to inherit.