LONDON, May 18 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a surprise new policy on Thursday that aims to transfer a greater share of the cost of caring for elderly people from taxpayers to those recipients who can afford to pay for their own care.
The proposals would hit wealthy property owners, the bedrock of May's Conservative Party electorate, who would risk having their houses sold off after their deaths to pay for the care they received, rather than passed on to their descendants.
With the Conservatives far ahead of the opposition Labour Party in the polls ahead of a June 8 election, there is little immediate risk for May, although the policy drew widespread criticism including from some experts on the care issue.
"Those who can should rightly contribute to their care from savings and accumulated wealth, rather than expecting current and future taxpayers to carry the cost on their behalf," the Conservatives said in a list of pre-election policy pledges.
The growing cost of caring for the elderly as the population ages is a problem that has bedevilled successive governments, with the current system widely seen as inadequate.
The issue has very high visibility for British voters, with media often reporting on subjects such as elderly people stuck in hospitals because of a lack of care to support them at home, or overworked nurses rushing from one appointment to the next.
But May's chosen set of remedies departed from previous Conservative policy under her predecessor David Cameron, who had planned to introduce a cap on the total cost of care for individuals.
Central to the new approach is a 100,000-pound ($130,330) capital floor, meaning that no matter how large the cost of their care, people will always retain at least that amount of their savings and assets, including the value of their home.
Currently, for people who receive care at home, the value of their property is not taken into account when calculating how much they should contribute to the cost.
Andrew Dilnot, an expert who led a review for Cameron's government into how to fund care for the elderly, said the new policy showed "a less than full understanding of the problems".
"People will be left helpless knowing that what will happen is if they're unlucky enough to suffer the need for care costs, they'll be entirely on their own until they're down to the last 100,000 pounds, all of their wealth including their house," he told the BBC.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the policy as an attack on older people, while the Liberal Democrats, a smaller opposition party, called it a "personal death tax".
Free market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs said it was right that care for the elderly should be paid for by those who receive it, or their families.
But the Bow Group, another free market think-tank, said the policy was a "stealth tax" on property owners who had already paid a lifetime of tax. ($1 = 0.7673 pounds) (editing by Michael Holden)