In common with other developed countries at the end of the 20th century, modernising public services was a priority of the United Kingdom (UK) Labour administration after its election in 1997. The modernisation reforms in health and social care exemplified their approach to public policy. The authors were commissioned to examine the evidence base for the modernisation of social care services for older people, and for this purpose conducted a systematic review of the relevant peer-reviewed UK research literature published from 1990 to 2001. Publications that reported descriptive, analytical, evaluative, quantitative and qualitative studies were identified and critically appraised under six key themes of modernisation: integration, independence, consistency, support for carers, meeting individuals' needs, and the workforce. This paper lists the principal features of each study, provides an overview of the literature, and presents substantive findings relating to three of the modernisation themes (integration, independence and individuals' needs). The account provides a systematic portrayal both of the state of social care for older people prior to the modernisation process and of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the evidence base. It suggests that, for evidence-based practice and policy to become a reality in social care for older people, there is a general need for higher quality studies in this area.