The government and the Conservatives have offered the electorate competing schemes to care for elderly people.

Last week the prime minister said the government would provide “free personal care” for 350,000 people in their own homes from next October.

The government estimates some 450,000 elderly people with the highest category of “critical” care needs could be eligible for council organised social care in 2010

Over the weekend the Conservatives said they would introduce a voluntary insurance scheme, with a “one-off joining fee” of around £8,000, to pay for residential care.

The Conservatives badged the proposal a “home protection scheme”, as it responds to fears elderly people are forced to sell their homes to pay for residential care. The scheme would not be publicly funded, although councils would need to assess eligibility of would-be users.

A government source told HSJ that £250m of the £720m annual cost of its proposed scheme would come from local authorities. The remaining £470m would be taken from Department of Health central budgets for marketing and public relations, research and the national programme for IT.

The DH’s marketing budget is around £70m and its research budget is £1bn. The source said only funds earmarked for “low priority” research would be raided, and specifically “not cancer”.

The budget would not be cut but rather its growth would be frozen, the source said.

In addition to that, the source said funds “outside what’s contracted to [the IT programme] may be reprioritised”.

A DH spokeswoman said £4.5bn of the £12.7bn budgeted to IT had been spent to date. She was not able to say how much of the remaining £8.2bn was contractually committed.

The government estimates some 450,000 elderly people with the highest category of “critical” care needs could be eligible for council organised social care in 2010. Some 100,000 will qualify under the means test for free care. The remaining 350,000 would normally be asked to contribute some or all of their costs. But, if Labour win the next election, Mr Brown’s pledge means they will not.

The government intends the free care as a two year interim measure while it brings forward plans for a national care service, as outlined in July’s green paper. That could provide all elderly people in need of social care with a minimum free care package, funded in part through a compulsory state backed social insurance.