Health secretary Alan Johnson has called for a 'national debate' on how we will meet the needs and costs of an ageing population.
Yet, less than a month after it was launched, his consultation is in danger of being sidetracked by a witless bureaucratic fix that misses the point and won't work.
Officials working on the forthcoming social care green paper are exploring a proposal to shift control of£7bn of adult social care from councils to a Department for Work and Pensions agency, which would then hand cash to individuals to manage as personal care budgets.
Just in practical terms the notion of a new government agency being established to handle the distribution of billions of pounds to the most vulnerable citizens is horrifying. Have ministers learned nothing from the fiasco around the DWP-run Child Support Agency?
Such a change, it is claimed, would be a natural extension of moves towards individual care budgets. These are undoubtedly empowering for some, but they are not even close to being universally applicable. And, logically, such a move will lead to local health commissioning for long term conditions, where personal budgets are beginning to be piloted, also being replaced by a national bureaucracy.
This green paper should be a vehicle for generating discussion on profound questions about what quality of life we want for ourselves in old age. It needs to embrace health and housing - both locally based services - as well as culture and education. How do we encourage older people to have stimulating and rewarding lives, and what contribution can different generations make to each other? All these issues will help determine the deal we make as a society to match our aspirations for old age with what we are able and willing to pay.
As well as being mistaken in principle and a horror to implement, setting up an agency to fund old age would inflict further political damage on the government. If the green paper disappears into a bureaucratic cul-de-sac it will provide evidence that Gordon Brown's administration cannot deliver ideas that seize the public's imagination. If it displays originality, insight and vision it could be a vote winner.