Theresa May has been accused of “chaos, confusion and indecision” after announcing a U-turn on her plans to make people pay more for social care just days after they were first announced.
The prime minister battled throughout Monday to defend her decision to put in place an “absolute limit” on the amount that people would have to pay despite no mention of the idea in her party’s manifesto, published on Thursday.
She also failed to set out the level at which the cap could be set, with Tory sources making clear there would be no further details before the general election.
In a combative primetime BBC1 interview with Andrew Neil, May insisted the shift in position had not been driven by enduring days of backlash against proposals, dubbed a “dementia tax”, to ask the elderly to contribute more towards care.
Instead, she hit out at the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of trying “to sneak into No 10 by playing on the fears of older and vulnerable people” – and said the plan was always to flesh out the policy through a government green paper.
“Nothing has changed from the principles on social care policy that we set out on our manifesto,” May said, arguing that urgent action was needed because of the ageing population. “Just one figure: in 10 years’ time, there will be 2 million more people over the age of 75. Now, our social care system will collapse if we don’t do anything about it.”
Under the Tory proposals, people needing social care at home would have to pay for it until the value of their assets – including their property – reached £100,000. The party also promised that a family home would never need to be sold in a person’s lifetime, with the costs, initially uncapped, instead recouped after death.
May added that this key plank of the Tory social care policy as well as the other controversial decision to limit winter fuel allowance to the poorest would remain in place.
“I’m not going to bury my head in the sand, I’m not going to play politics with it, which is what Jeremy Corbyn is doing,” she told Neil about the controversial decisions.
May insisted the fresh proposal for a cap, which came after days of pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats and private concerns from Conservative MPs about the social care package, was not a U-turn but a clarification. “We have not rewritten the manifesto. The principles on which we have based our social care policy remain absolutely the same,” she said.
However, the idea of a cap on care costs – as recommended by Sir Andrew Dilnot following a major inquiry for the previous coalition government – was explicitly rejected in both the Tory manifesto and a briefing to journalists about the policy.
Moreover, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said last week his party was “being completely explicit in our manifesto that we’re dropping [the cap]”, and cabinet ministers Damian Green and Boris Johnson defended the social care package in broadcast interviews on Sunday.
The turnaround comes after the government’s controversial U-turn earlier this year over a budget proposal to raise national insurance for the self-employed and May’s change of heart over holding an early general election.
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.”
The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, said: “As Theresa May has made clear herself, nothing has changed and her heartless dementia tax remains in place. This is a cold and calculated attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes.”
Conservative sources argued that the new policy was different to Dilnot’s recommendation, which paid for a cap through general taxation, a move they said was not fair for “ordinary working families”. Instead, this policy will use money raised from the new means tests for social care and winter fuel allowance to fund an upper limit.
The original policy in the manifesto caused anger because payments after death could eat into the inheritance of offspring whose parents were unlucky enough to suffer from a condition – such as dementia – in which reliance on social care is inevitable. The phrase “dementia tax” was used to highlight the difference in care for those reliant on social care with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and those with illnesses such as cancer that qualify for NHS treatment.
Dilnot himself said it was “perfectly reasonable” to charge people with bigger houses higher inheritance tax, but there was a moral case for a cap when it came to social care costs which can run into the tens of thousands or more. “What does not seem to be a reasonable position is that we should have an inheritance tax that’s much higher if you happen to be one of the one people in 10 who’s unlucky enough to have dementia,” he told Sky News.
He welcomed the move by the Tories, saying it would provide “a great deal of reassurance to people” but urged the government not to set the cap much higher than the £72,000 planned by David Cameron’s government.
Earlier, the prime minister used a speech to launch the Tory Welsh manifesto in Wrexham to reveal her party’s change of heart. “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.
“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.”
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. May accused a Guardian journalist of borrowing a term from the Labour party by using “dementia tax” in a question.
Corbyn said the Tories had not given any level for the cap. “They haven’t explained to the millions of people, who are desperately worried at the moment about what kind of care they are going to get in the future, desperately worried for children as well about how their parents are going to be looked after,” he said.
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