'The McElephant in the corner, of course, is devolved Scotland, where personal care is free'

You learn something new every day, don't you? In this instance, I learned that a nursing home in the Shropshire village of Dorrington has been burdened with the cost of a£10,000 machine - 'huge and automated' - solely for the purpose of cleaning bedpans which had long been cleaned satisfactorily in the traditional hands-on manner.

My source for this grim fact is Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham and, at 6ft 8ins, believed to be the tallest man ever elected to parliament. The MP was not sure who to blame, the government or the EU. But since he was attacking British ministers for ever-rising costs on care homes, Ivan Lewis, the health minister in attendance, took the blame.

How did this game of pass the bedpan come about? Because backbench MPs were marking the 50th anniversary of the Abbeyfield Society, a leading care home player with 500 member societies, 800 houses, 8,000 residents and 10,000 volunteers. Churches and cathedrals have been celebrating its work too.

Being parliament, of course, the celebratory tone did not last long, though MP for St Albans Anne Main, an ex-teacher who nursed her first husband through his last illness, clearly set out with the best of intentions: she understands the complex issue.

But it did not take her long to get stuck into the care home funding in general and Whitehall guidance that providers should not seek to reclaim excessive costs from users (ie old people) above the agreed contract price.

The guidance is not mandatory, so it results in what Mrs Main called 'huge differences in interpretation of the law' by local councils. As this column never tires of pointing out, if there is one thing that MPs can't abide it is Whitehall interference in local policy-making. And if there is another thing they can't abide it is the varying consequences of local decisions.

Anyway, by the time Mrs Main had piled on the cost of regulation (with the help of Mr Kawczynski), the national minimum wage (not forgetting rogue employers who exploit foreign staff), the cost of checks with the Criminal Records Bureau and of regulatory fees - up from£1,901 to£2,186 this year - life is getting tough for home owners and their clientele.

Barely drawing breath, the MP also raised the spousal-liability rule, which means what it sounds. Ministers have promised to repeal it. Mrs Main recalled the old adage 'Don't get married and don't get old,' and complained that some spouses have to sell their homes. The best Mr Lewis could offer for now is that Labour's deferred liability means most people do not have to sell up, as was the case pre-1997.

Indeed 1997 is the familiar dividing line in these debates. Mr Lewis fairly points out that Tory community care legislation in the '90s, excellent though it was in helping keep elderly people in their homes, also pushed councils in the direction of funding private care homes instead of doing it themselves.

Yes, but you have been in power 10 years, Opposition MPs cried back. There is still not enough extra money. In reality, all the main parties have been slippery on this. At the last election the Tories offered to solve the conundrum between nursing care (free) and personal care (means-tested in England) by offering a cap on individual payments, to encourage saving.

Labour spoke breezily of providing 'health care free in long-term care establishments', which is misleading for England.

For the Lib Dems, Sandra Gidley admits her party manifesto was less than honest in not admitting that individuals would have to pay means-tested 'hotel costs,' as they still do in Scotland.

About 35,000 older people in England, up to 8,000 in Scotland and 2,200 in Wales do not get state help with nursing home fees - which average about£17,000 a year against£6,000 for accommodation.

The McElephant in the corner, of course, is devolved Scotland, where personal care is free. 'Scotland is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain this model,' claims Mr Lewis. Indeed. The Fair Care for Older People report for the Scottish Executive calculated that the free personal care bill will almost double to£227m by 2022, the total cost of long-term care in Scotland also doubling to£2.4bn. Real money.

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) ofThe Guardian.