This is a big year for social care, possibly the biggest for a generation, says minister Ivan Lewis whenever he gets the chance. 'We've got to get it right.'

It was a lively start to the big year then last week. The Commission for Social Care Inspection turned in a damning verdict on the way adult social care is handled across England - despite those extra billions spent.

Mr Lewis swung into action and announced an independent inquiry into the postcode differences in those patchy services, the first of a series of initiatives up the Brown government's sleeve in 2008. "None of which will change the fact that there isn't enough money,'' critics will snap back.

North of the border there was action on this front too. Public spending watchdog Audit Scotland - confirmed what everyone has realised since the Lab-Lib coalition at Holyrood combined to offer free personal care (as well as nursing care) to the over-65s in 2002.

Labour's Scots chancellor at Westminster, Gordon Brown, had rejected the Sutherland commission's recommendation that the rest of the UK do the same, so Scotland's move was always controversial. "You can't afford it and it's we who pay,'' was Whitehall's advice.

Six years later Audit Scotland has concluded that the policy was not seriously costed or clarified - and now faces a£63m shortfall.

Worse, the courts have ruled that although needy people are indeed entitled to free personal care, councils that can't afford to pay are not required to reimburse a family that put Dad into a residential home while he waited for promised council action.

The postcode lottery has not been abolished in Scotland where 19 of the 32 unitary councils have levied charges at one stage or another, for example for food preparation. Confused? You should be.

Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond's deputy and SNP health secretary, has now asked Lord Sutherland to produce a clear policy to be applied across Scotland. When I caught up with her on Sunday night - before this week's vote at Holyrood on the first SNP budget - Ms Sturgeon insisted the policy was "not unaffordable". "But we have to ensure it is sustainable in the long term. The percentage of local authority spending on care of the elderly is falling," thanks to more proactive policies that keep oldsters in their own homes longer.

The SNP has also put aside£90m over three years to match England's 18-week NHS waiting time by 2011 - but that's another story. Labour MP Michael Connarty also tells me Scots councils are being squeezed by an SNP deal to cap council tax. "People are starting to ask the SNP 'where are the services?'"

We shall see. Back to Mr Lewis, to whom I also spoke. His review of eligibility for social care - in effect any care outside hospital that helps old people to have maximum independence - will address inconsistencies between councils (73 per cent refuse care to those whose needs are not "substantial") and improving prevention and early intervention policies.

Since the elderly are often told "if you've got more than£20,000 [in savings] you're on your own", Mr Lewis wants better advice for people using the system for the first time. He wants to expedite the promised shift to personal budgets, about which I heard a disabled woman talk so warmly on the radio.

You will not be shocked to hear that ministers want better integration between health and social services and better use of all their budgets, including the benefits budget. "Are we getting best value for money?" asks Mr Lewis. As with much else at present Lord Darzi's review may provide some answers.

This spring Gordon Brown will announce a "new deal for carers" to address problems such as respite care and more respect for young carers. He hopes to start a public debate on the balance between what the state and (means-tested) families should do - and can afford because (he implies) Scotland's policies are unaffordable.

As people live longer they are getting nastier chronic conditions than they did in the 1940s welfare state. Scottish or English, they also have higher expectations - and not always a greater sense of responsibility. Tricky, isn't it?