The debate on free services for older people lumps three questions together.

The first is whether we can afford to support services for growing numbers of older people. That question has been reviewed in many reports; the answer comes out, consistently, that the commitments are sustainable, but they will have to be paid for in higher taxes or contributions.

Many people imagine that when they pay for pensions, that the money is being saved for their old age. In most cases, it isn't. Contributions now largely pay for pensions now; the current generation of workers is relying on the next generation to pay for them in turn. The real test, then, is whether we're willing to pay for pensioners now.

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The second question is whether help should be free. The critical judgment is about what should be provided, and what should not. Some essential items we expect pensioners to pay for (food and telephones), some we don't (personal care and prescriptions) and for some the signals are mixed (cleaning).

The arguments for free services are partly about solidarity –services we want people to have and have a duty to provide – and partly self-interest, whether we'd want ourselves or our families to be charged in the same circumstances. Few people in Scotland would want everything to be paid for: it's difficult to make the case that help with incontinence – an important component of health care as well as personal care – should not be free.

The third question is about universalism, whether benefits and services should go to everyone, or only those in most need. Services that test people's needs are complex, difficult to provide fairly and can be expensive. Tests are often intrusive, burdensome, demeaning and many are put off from asking for help. Universal services use simple eligibility criteria, such as age, so are cheap to run. The basic argument for bus passes, for example, is that many older people need help, extending it generally allows those who need it to get help, and people who have alternative transport don't use the buses.

When money is short, simple generalised provision is often the way to go.

Paul Spicker is professor of public policy at Robert Gordon University