Some deft re-wording was enough to save the day when Scotland's wrangling over personal care costs turned ugly. Lynn Eaton examines the new promises

Peter Mandelson's resignation as Northern Ireland secretary last week may have rocked Westminster, but in Scotland they have been having their own political turmoil.

Nothing as crass as pulling strings to get a British passport, but something far more fundamental: whether Scottish pensioners should be entitled to free personal, as well as nursing, care.

Scottish health minister Susan Deacon announced in the Scottish Parliament last Wednesday that, despite expectations to the contrary, personal care costs were not automatically going to be free for all. In an attempt to appease angry MSPs, she announced a develop-ment group (see box) to investigate the way forward.

That, said MSPs, was not good enough. Twenty-four hours later, the Scottish Liberal Democrat/ Labour alliance was in danger of collapsing during a debate in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday morning.

Minister for Parliament Tom McCabe was forced to make a gesture which would stave off a political crisis. The careful and clever wording was that of an Executive which was squeezed into a corner (see box). It actually said little more than had been said already.

But the spin was enough to quieten the masses: 'Care u-turn saves face for McLeish' blazed The Scotsman the next morning.

Groups like the British Medical Association in Scotland speedily announced their 'delight' at the news.

'The Executive should be complimented for their willingness to respond to the democratically expressed will of the people, ' said Dr John Garner, chair of the BMA Scottish council.

Age Concern Scotland's policy officer, Jess Barrow, acknowledges that Mr McCabe's actual statement does not quite go as far as the headlines imply.

'But we are interpreting it as a firm commitment, ' she says. 'It would be very, very difficult for them to back down with the level of feeling in the country. And this kind of headline will have had an impact. '

The Scottish press has been full of the story over the last few weeks. First there was the clear commitment in January by Scotland's first minister, Henry McLeish, to implement the Sutherland commission on longterm care in full.

That included the controversial element of free personal, as well as nursing, care - something already ruled out in England and Wales. But the idea of deprived Sassenachs crossing the border to claim the free care packages alarmed Westminster.

Prime minister Tony Blair even despatched his trusted servant, Lord Lipsey, one of the dissenting voices on the Sutherland commission, to Scotland to dissuade the recalcitrant troops.

It was not just the free personal care issue which stirred up so much protest, but that the whole process, supposedly the act of a devolved government, has been tainted by the interfering hand of Westminster.

In a frantic attempt to appease Westminster, yet save the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in the Scottish Parliament, Susan Deacon was, according to those in the know, working up until the 11th hour on her announcement last week. It may have kept Westminster happy - at least for a day.

It was welcomed by David Hinchliffe, chair of the Commons health select committee, who was in the Scottish Parliament for the announcement. 'It is a positive outcome in terms of the position in England, ' he told HSJ before boarding his plane back to London.

'The fact that they have got a continuing commitment to free personal care is a positive step. It adds pressure to the campaign in England. '

He also says he is pleased at the appointment of deputy health minister Malcolm Chisholm, who resigned from the government in December 1997 over plans to cut single parent benefits, to head the team. 'I have a great deal of confidence in him, ' he says.

But the news was greeted with less enthusiasm north of the border. With Mr Hinchliffe heading home, events took an unexpected turn. The Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats put down a motion for debate the following day, calling for a 'clear, firm and unequivocal commitment' to free personal care 'with a definite timetable for its implementation'.

The motion was to go to the vote at 5pm, but minutes before that came Mr McCabe's olive branch. The Lib Dems were appeased, but the SNP is still furious: 'Thursday's shambles was a shameless skin-saving exercise by Labour to avoid a parliamentary defeat - nothing more, ' says Nicola Sturgeon, shadow health minister from the SNP.

'The government are still only committed to bringing forward proposals - there is still no agreement in principle to implement free personal care for all elderly people, or a commitment to a defined timetable. '