Theresa May has announced a U-turn on her party’s social care policy by promising an “absolute limit” on the amount people will have to pay for their care but is not planning to say what level the cap will be set at before the election.
The prime minister’s decision came after Conservative party proposals to make people pay more of the costs of social care were branded a “dementia tax” – but she insisted it was simply a clarification.
“Since my manifesto was published, the proposals have been subject to fake claims made by Jeremy Corbyn. The only things he has left to offer in this campaign are fake claims, fear and scaremongering,” she said, during a speech in Wrexham to launch the Welsh Tory manifesto.
“So I want to make a further point clear. This manifesto says that we will come forward with a consultation paper, a government green paper. And that consultation will include an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs.”
The prime minister said key elements of her party’s social care policy – to limit winter fuel allowance to the poorest and take people’s properties into account in the means test for social care at home – would remain in place.
It is understood that the party will not pre-empt the consultation with a figure, not least because the level will depend on where the means test is set for winter fuel allowance.
But the Conservative manifesto and a briefing for journalists on the policy had made no mention of a cap, with the policy only announced after days of backlash and amid a slight tightening in the opinion polls.
May immediately faced a string of difficult questions from reporters, with one saying the announcement amounted to a “manifesto of chaos”.
A testy prime minister responded by insisting that there was always going to be a consultation and the “basic principles” of the policy were unchanged.
“Nothing has changed, nothing has changed,” she added tersely, raising her voice when asked towards the end of the session if anything else in the Tory manifesto was likely to be altered.
The prime minister accused a Guardian journalist of borrowing a term from the Labour party after it was suggested that the “dementia tax” would still mean a wide disparity between the children of Alzheimer’s and cancer sufferers.
“This is a system that will ensure that people who are faced by the prospect of either requiring care in their own home or go into a home are able to see that support provided for them and don’t have to worry on that month by month basis about where that funding is coming from. They won’t have to sell their family home when they are alive, and they will be able to pass savings on to their children,” she said.
The announcement triggered claims of “chaos, confusion and indecision” from Labour, while the Lib Dems said it represented a “manifesto meltdown”.
Under the Tory proposals, people needing social care at home would have to pay for it until the value of their assets – including their home – reached a floor of £100,000. The party also promised that a family home would never need to be sold in a person’s lifetime, with costs instead recouped after death.
However, the policy caused anger because payments after death could eat into the inheritance of offspring whose parents were unlucky enough to suffer from a condition – like dementia – in which reliance on social care is inevitable.
The phrase “dementia tax” was used by Labour but also by newspapers supportive of May to highlight the idea that someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, which means heavy reliance on social care, would be less able to pass on their home to their children than someone with an NHS-treated condition such as cancer.
Despite May’s claim that the “basic principles” of the policy were the same, the Tories had previously briefed that their policy was “fairer and more equitable than the current system and the cap recommended by the Dilnot report”.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was asked on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme if the policy was a rejection of both Dilnot’s cap and the £72,000 limit that was going to be put in place by the Conservatives under David Cameron.
“Yes, and not only are we dropping it but we are dropping it ahead of a general election and we’re being completely explicit in our manifesto that we’re dropping it,” said Hunt.
A Tory source insisted that the party still believed Dilnot’s recommendations were unfair because they were being funded by “ordinary working families” via general taxation. They said the cap would be funded by the two new means tests, arguing that this amounted to an additional element rather than a U-turn.
Labour’s Barbara Keeley, the shadow social care minister, told the Guardian: “What people need is certainty, so they can know how their future care needs will be met. What the Tories are delivering is chaos, confusion and indecision over the funding of care. The Tories were going to introduce a cap on care costs in April 2016, then in April 2020 and now they are talking of a green paper, which is another delaying tactic.”
Wes Streeting, the Labour candidate in Ilford North, called it a shambles and said it was not a U-turn but a “fudge” because there was no information on what level the cap would be set at.
In Wrexham, May argued that the policy was necessary to create a “sustainable future for social care”, saying there would be 2 million more people over 75 coming into the system over the next decade. “Our social care system will collapse unless we make some important decisions now about how we fund it,” she said.