The row over reform of care for the elderly escalated over the weekend as Labour and the Tories accused each other of sabotaging attempts to reach a cross-party consensus.

After appeals from charities for an end to the political mud-slinging, health secretary Andy Burnham called a non-partisan care conference to tackle the issue this week.

There are no decisions taken on this issue. We’ve got options on the table, we need to explore those options

But his invitation to the Tories to take part was spurned by shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, who accused Labour of considering a 10 per cent “death duty” on estates to pay for care.

Mr Burnham hit back that the Tories were spreading “scare stories” on an issue that affected the most vulnerable people in society.

A television debate featuring the two men descended into claim and counter-claim over the failure of cross-party talks on elderly care reform.

The health secretary sidestepped claims that he had confronted Mr Lansley in the Commons last week and accused his Tory counterpart of having “bloody shafted” him.

“Well, I’m trying to keep my temper here,” he said, when asked about it on BBC1’s The Politics Show.

Mr Burnham has dismissed the possibility of a “flat rate” levy but admits he is considering a compulsory arrangement as part of prime minister Gordon Brown’s planned new national care service.

The Tories accused ministers of looking at a 10 per cent levy on estates, on top of any inheritance tax liabilities, upon death. Ipsos Mori has been employed to test opinion on the idea.

But Mr Burnham insisted: “There are no decisions taken on this issue. We’ve got options on the table, we need to explore those options.”