Holyrood to end postcode lottery over free personal care for elderly

THE Scottish Government said it would force councils to deliver free personal care to the elderly after MSPs voted against charging last night.

Politicians from all parties agreed it was wrong that eight councils continue to charge for assisting with food preparation due to a loophole in the free personal care legislation of 2002.

The vote also gave the SNP administration a mandate from Holyrood to go to Westminster to demand the 30 million attendance allowance – a benefit designed to self-fund people in care homes – which was withdrawn by the UK government after free personal care was introduced.

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However, Labour was accused of U-turning on its support for the recent report into free personal care for the elderly by Lord Sutherland after voting against calls for the allowance to be reinstated.

MSPs backed a Tory amendment demanding the councils concerned – Glasgow, Dundee, Orkney, North Lanarkshire, Argyll and Bute, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders and Stirling – stop charging immediately and pay back the estimated 25 million taken from some 12,000 elderly people.

The vote was a victory for a campaign led by David McLetchie, Tory MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands who has battled for an end to the "postcode lottery" determining which pensioners receive free care.

He told MSPs: "Together, the eight councils cover nearly a third of the population of Scotland and I do not think it is right that older people living in these areas should be the victims of a postcode lottery in the application and implementation of a policy which is meant to be of universal benefit across Scotland as a whole."

Mr McLetchie added: "There is nothing confusing about the legislation.

"The Act states local authorities may not charge for care of a kind mentioned in the Act (which states], as regards a person's eating requirements, assisting with the preparation of food and in the fulfilment of special dietary needs."

Last night, a spokesman for Nicola Sturgeon, the health secretary, confirmed that the Scottish Government intends to legislate to end the ambiguity that has allowed councils to charge, although it is unlikely they will force them to pay the money back.

There was nobody available from the eight councils to comment on the issue last night.

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However, Glasgow City Council has previously stated that the vast majority of pensioners do not pay more than 15 a week for food preparation.

In Argyll and Bute, the figure has been estimated at 9.75 an hour and in Stirling it has been put at 8.80 an hour.

Prior to the vote, a spokesman for North Lanarkshire Council, which it has been estimated charges up to 21 a day for food preparation, said: "The initial legislation was ambiguous in some key areas and the (then] Scottish Executive's subsequent guidance was also unclear."

SNP ministers attacked their Labour counterparts for not backing demands for the return of the attendance allowance.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that the issue would be brought up at the next meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee between the UK government and devolved governments.

She said the money was an important part of the funding review that would be needed to pay for free personal care over the next 25 years.

However, Margaret Curran, Labour's spokeswoman on health, accused the SNP of trying to misrepresent Labour's position and called for the Scottish Government to take a different approach to resolving the issue.

She added: "We accept and have consistently argued the resources should come to Scotland.

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"But I will not allow (the SNP] to use that as an attempt to get into a narrow dispute with London.

"It is much more likely to resolve financial issues (by negotiating the bloc grant for Scotland from Westminster] than if you adopt the approach undertaken by Nicola Sturgeon."

"I would think this approach would lead to a much more constructive settlement."


THE debate on free personal care was brought forward by SNP ministers yesterday following a report on the flagship legislation by Lord Sutherland which was published last month.

In his report Lord Sutherland said that the cost of free personal care would probably treble by 2031 to 813 million because of the increasing number of elderly people, particularly those aged over 90.

Generally the number of over-65s is expected to rise from 837,000 in 2006 to 1.36 million by 2031.

Lord Sutherland said that the policy was currently suffering from a shortfall of 40 million a year, about 30 million of which was identified as being the Attendance Allowance withheld by Westminster since the act was passed in Holyrood in 2002.

The policy of free personal care, which was introduced by Labour and the Lib Dems, has also been contentious south of the Border because it is not available to pensioners in England.