GORDON Brown's announcement of a national consultation on “the future of care and support” for the elderly is welcome both for the importance of the issue and for the indication it gives of his determination to address society's long-term problems. There is no doubt that existing provision, whether private or public, for the care of the elderly is being overtaken by demographic change. There are five million people over 75 in Britain today; that number will increase by two-thirds in the next 25 years. The annual public cost of care for the elderly will rise from the present 12.7 billion pounds to almost 41 billion, plus inflation, by 2041. Privately funded care which currently must be provided by those with more than 22'000 pounds in savings (including property) is becoming an intolerable burden in many cases.

Clearly change is needed but the prime minsiter is right to think that it should be preceded by a public consultation to feel the pulse of the public's opinion on this complex issue. If more money has to be found, how should it be raised? What should be the role of the family, of children and even grandchilden? How can the balance be struck between the thrifty who have provided for their own needs and the careless who have nothing in reserve?

Gordon Brown will probably be told that he is “dithering” by holding this consultation instead of announcing new policies. He should ignore such criticism from a party that appears to prefer instant knee-jerk reaction to long-term issues.