03/05/2017 08:28 BST | Updated 03/05/2017 08:28 BST

Are Care Vouchers The Answer To The Care Crisis?

Theresa May says she is determined to come up with a long-term solution to the care crisis.

Media reports suggest that she and senior colleagues are looking at the idea of introducing tax-exempt care vouchers, mirroring childcare vouchers currently available for some working parents.

On the face of it, this seems like a good idea - and one that I must admit to promoting more than a decade ago.

But even then, we knew its limits. Care vouchers would only be a top-up for paying for care for some families - not a fundamental reform of funding care.

Ironically the Conservative government has in recent years been reducing the use of childcare vouchers following its decision to introduce 'tax free childcare' which comes into effect this month.

Under the new measure parents will be able to claim back 20% of their childcare spending through their tax bill.

Some parents will still be better off on childcare vouchers. But the voucher providers have been looking for new ways to boost their business following the decline of childcare vouchers. Hence care vouchers.

Detail is thin on the new proposal at the moment but assuming they operate on the same basis as childcare vouchers, employees would be able to get care vouchers from their employers through a salary sacrifice scheme and not pay the tax and national insurance on this element of their income.

So employees with parents or other relatives needing care could use the care vouchers towards the cost of care. Presumably it would have to be regulated care, registered and inspected by the Care Quality Commission or their equivalents.

Care vouchers could be a bonus for those who are working with responsibilities for caring for an adult or older person. But what happens to those older people who don't have any children or don't have any children in work or have children whose employer doesn't offer care vouchers?

More fundamentally, care vouchers wouldn't bring new money into the care system. They would substitute some private spending on care with some additional public spending.

The truth of the matter is that care in this country is massively underfunded. The care crisis has come about from rising demand for care as our population ages while care funding by councils has been cut over the last six years.

The need for better care requires much bigger measures than care vouchers - measures that make the care system fairer, simpler and sustainable.

Rather than revisiting the Dilnot proposals, the next government could look at much simpler steps towards a care system that is funded like health. For example, why not raise the threshold for paying for care from £23,250 to £250,000 - which according to independent research would cost the same as implementing the Dilnot cap on care costs.

That would help many more older people and their families on low and middle incomes with property worth less than the average home.

Ultimately a new government should fund care in the same way as health, free at the point of need, to create a truly integrated system.

Care vouchers would not support integration and would make paying for care even more complex than it currently is. It's not the long-term solution that older and disabled people and their families desperately need.

Stephen Burke is director of United for All Ages and Good Care Guide