Chris Lancelot: A 'death tax' to pay for elderly care is unfair

Paying for the care of the elderly has suddenly become an election issue, with the concept of a 'death tax' gaining wide support. Proposals include a flat-rate charge of £20,000; or alternatively a 10 per cent levy on the dead person's estate.

Although superficially attractive, implementing such a tax is fraught with difficulties. To whom will it apply? Everyone who dies, including the young? All pensioners? Or just those who have received state care because of frailty, or chronic illnesses like dementia? (If so, it's a tax on being ill.)

What about the young? Will the family of a young father killed in an traffic accident or dead from multiple sclerosis be forced to sell their home to pay the tax if they have no savings?

What about spouses? How does an elderly widow pay her husband's death tax when their house is their only asset? What about family carers, selflessly looking after a relative with Alzheimer's for decades? Will the state demand the levy if the relative goes into a nursing home for just the last two weeks of their life?

Then again, if a flat-rate levy is imposed, poorer patients risk having all their belongings and family mementoes sold off at death to pay the bill.

What about tax avoidance? Clearly it will make sense to spend all your money before you become old. This will escalate the current trend of elderly householders selling their homes to companies which pay cash (which is then spent) while allowing them to live rent-free in the property until they die.

Finally, many pensioners have no appreciable assets, so a death tax will raise much less than might be expected.

But it's the betrayal of principle that really sticks in my craw. When Aneurin Bevan introduced the welfare state and the NHS, he hailed them as being 'from cradle to grave'. Either care is delivered when it is needed, paid for out of general taxation, or we don't have a welfare state. Which is it to be?

A death tax will inevitably be unfair and unjust, and will come to be regarded as a 'poll tax on death'. It won't solve the financial problems caused by an aging population. Paying for their care out of general taxation is the only honourable solution.

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