Death and Taxes

Nothing is certain except death and taxes.

Well, up to point. Death – yes, it comes to us all, sooner or later. The best we can do is try and put it off as long as possible by eating sensibly, drinking moderately and hoping we don’t meet with accidents on the way.

As for taxes – well, international corporations and the very rich can avoid them, but the rest of us, unless our income is lower than the living wage, have to pay our dues.

I think it was our current Prime Minister who, when in opposition, combined the two in one memorable headline phrase:¬† Death Tax! That was his effective dismissal of Labour’s tentative suggestion about how to pay for end of life care.

So, what was that outrageous suggestion? As I recall it was that care for the elderly should be paid for by a slight increase in inheritance tax.

There’s no denying that care for those who can no longer care for themselves is a genuine problem with an ageing population such as ours. Even those with a healthy lifestyle will not inevitably avoid illness, disability and dementia as they age. And frequent revelations about abuse of the elderly in care homes – or even in their own homes – does nothing to make those of us nearing our later years view them with anything but unease.

The trouble is that care of the elderly is hugely underfunded. Care workers are often badly trained (if trained at all), underpaid and undervalued. Good care homes (and there are some) tend to be very expensive and beyond the reach of most of us. If as a society we want good care we have to pay for it, somehow.

At the moment, all the emphasis seems to be on how to avoid forcing people to use up all their savings to pay for care. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t even touch on the problem of the quality of care available, nor of how the state is going to be able to look after those who have no savings.

Which brings me back to inheritance tax. What better way to pay for end-of-life care than a charge on your estate when you’re dead? The argument against this is that then there’ll be less money to pass on to the next generation. But only the very largest estates pay any inheritance tax at all, and to bring a few more into the net is hardly unjust, I’d have thought. People object that they’ve worked hard all their lives, scrimped and saved so as to have something to pass on to their children. Which may be true, up to a point. But a great many of these same people will have acquired wealth more by good fortune than hard work – perhaps by inheriting something themselves, or simply by living in a property that has greatly increased in value since they bought it, or by happening to be employed in a job that offers big bonuses and skilful ways of evading tax.

For working hard is no guaranteed way of accruing vast savings. Many people work incredibly hard, in low paid work, often doing several jobs at once to try and keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. These people are every bit as deserving of good care in old age as the more fortunate members of society.

It seems to have become unfashionable to think we should care for one another, by taking a bit more from the rich to help look after the less well off. Meanwhile, the rich get richer, and inequality widens. (If anyone wants convincing how bad that is for all of us, then I urge them to read ‘The Spirit Level’ by Wilkinson and Pickett, which shows that unequal societies are bad even for their wealthiest members).

Which brings me back to that Death Tax. I want to find, should I ever need them, that the very best carers and care homes are available to me, as to all my fellow citizens. And it seems to me that a Death Tax is exactly the right way to fund such care.

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