Michael Klimes asks if a permanent, independent body staffed by technocrats can find answers to funding retirement and social care
Prime minister Theresa May's proposal that elderly people should pay for care in their own home unless they have under £100,000 in assets was supposed to an attempt to deal with the social care crisis.
But the idea put on the table during the 2017 General Election campaign was dubbed the "dementia tax" and subsequently dropped.
Now the can has been kicked down the road again, some in the industry are calling for an independent ‘later life commission' to be established to develop a national strategy for financing retirement and social care.
Indeed, in this week's Pension Buzz survey, 56% of respondents supported the idea.
It is important to note this commission would be permanent and have actual powers to do things - different to the Pensions Commission led by Lord Adair Turner from 2002 to 2006, which is held up by many as a model commission. It recommended increases to the state pension age, a more generous state pension and the creation of a new national pension scheme.
One reason for introducing a later life commission is the worsening gap in social care funding. In October, NHS Digital figures showed annual spending by local authorities on social care rose by £556m in 2016/2017 to £17.5bn.
Aries Insight director Ian Neale argues it is becoming harder to dodge the question of social care, and a later life commission is the only way for an appropriate strategy to emerge. The need is acute and the most fundamental questions involve how later life should be financed.
"A crucial question is how to integrate provision and funding for social care with retirement income provision: the latter has received some attention, the former little or none," he says.
Neale envisages a body set up through primary legislation with real powers and accountable to parliament.
"A later life commission should be charged with developing strategy and policies to ensure a sustainable life for generations of older citizens to come. There may be areas where it is authorised to decided and act independently, like the Bank of England's role in setting the base interest rate," he continues.
So how might it work in practice, both at the individual and policy level?
Independent consultant Kevin LeGrand thinks the way policy on social care and freedoms can be tied together is at the point when a person first accesses their pension.
"Later life is defined as when people access their pot. The care issue may be best dealt with in most cases by some form of insurance to pool the risk, which would be easier to deal with as a one-off premium at the point of first access of the pension pot," he explains.
As part of the process the commission could assign a government department the job of checking people have the money to cover social care and require them to provide evidence.
In terms of those who would serve on it, it could be staffed by experts appointed from relevant government departments, from outside government or a mix of both.
The main advantage is it would not be subject to electoral pressure.
"The benefit from the proposed commission sitting permanently is that it should bring long-term continuity of policy that the pension and care sectors both need; the commission would be required to ensure the continued relevance of its policies by conducting a formal review, including public consultation, every five years," LeGrand continues.
However, he warns politicians would not give up powers easily in these areas.
"Pensions and social care cover a huge amount of government spending and power. I can see politicians would oppose the handover of such power to an unelected body of technocrats," he adds.
Royal London director of policy Sir Steve Webb has one central objection about a commission grappling with these issues.
"My key point would be that these are intensely ‘political' issues - they are about the allocation of resources between rich and poor, one generation and the next, the role of the state against the private sector and so on.
"There simply isn't a ‘right answer' which if we put enough clever people in a room for long enough they will come up with," he says.
Webb points towards a series of commissions on long-term care such as the Wanless Report and Dilnot Commission as evidence they do not work.
Association of Member Nominated Trustees co-chairman David Weeks says it would be difficult to have a truly independent commission.
"The stance of the commission will depend on its members; these questions require sensitivity."
Also, history shows commissions tend to find it difficult to deal with tricky political subjects. "Mrs May's experience in the general election over 'dementia tax' shows that the issue is an emotive one that needs careful political handling. This is not always an aspect that independent commissions address with sensitivity."
Politics vs policy
Obviously, there is a tension between politics and policy in the discussion of how adequate funding for social care and pensions is achieved.
Trades Union Congress policy officer Tim Sharp thinks these tensions are best handled by a commission.
"This is not to take the politics out of the subject, which is neither possible nor desirable. It is about making the politics of pensions and retirement work better," he says.
The debate on how to tackle social care and pensions is clearly emotive but society cannot continue avoiding it.
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