Glad to be grey?

Kendra Inman looks at what older people want from the next
government, while our election panel of social workers give their
verdicts on New Labour’s track record. Also, Liberal Democrat and
Conservative spokespersons outline what they would do for older
people if they win power.

Older people’s opinions vary as much as those of any other age
group. But when it comes to election campaigns, they are united on
a handful of key issues.

If the calls to Age Concern’s advice line are anything to go by,
older people worry about “health service provision, pension levels,
and transport,” says the charity’s head of policy Helena Herklots.
“They want to know whether there will be enough support to help
them remain independent and to take part in society and whether or
not that help will be hard to get.”

In addition, a recent Mori poll carried out for Help the Aged
revealed that older people on very low incomes are most worried
about crime. It was cited by 31 per cent of those asked as the key
priority for improvement in their local area. Despite the fact that
statistics show they are less likely to be victims of crime than
younger people, more than half of respondents felt crime had
increased in their neighbourhood. Older people also identified
money and pensions – 17 per cent – followed by public transport –
13 per cent – and health – 9 per cent – as topics that caused them

In the run-up to the election, two high profile older people’s
charities have outlined their demands. Age Concern has called for
all the political parties to act on five priorities to secure the
votes of older people. The charity’s wish-list includes an end to
pensioner poverty, new laws to outlaw age discrimination, an end to
ageism in the NHS and other public services, an end to charges for
long-term care and cheap and reliable public transport. Help the
Aged adds warm homes and a greater say in local services to the

No one would deny the charities’ aims are laudable but will they
be fulfilled? If the pollsters are right and the election is little
more than a shoe-in for Labour, will older people feature in the
manifesto? Or, as many suspect, has the government already set out
its stall?

In recent months, the Labour good news machine has gone into
overdrive. Announcements about tackling pensioner poverty with the
minimum income guarantee (MIG)and above-inflation rise in the state
pension, and an end to discrimination in the health service with
the National Service Framework for Older People, have come thick
and fast.

The campaign to restore the link between earnings and the state
pension led by the formidable former MP Barbara Castle has failed
to convince the government. Instead, ministers have responded to
pensioner poverty by targeting means-tested benefits at the least

Campaigners have welcomed the moves and agree that the worst-off
pensioners will have more money in their purses and wallets.
However, there are major drawbacks, says Help the Aged. People shy
away from claiming means-tested benefits so the extra cash is
failing to reach many who need it. More than 500,000 pensioners who
are entitled to MIG fail to claim it – a total of one in five of
all those eligible. The pension credit, designed to reward savers
on moderate incomes, is due to be introduced in 2003 and will
further complicate the claiming process, say critics.

“If you are an elderly person getting by at the bottom of the
welfare state you will be better off,” says Mervyn Kohler, head of
public affairs for the charity Help the Aged. However, “there’s a
catch. It is difficult enough to get people to take up the current
benefits. If the current take-up rates are replicated with the new
credit the results will be dreadful. People will lose out.”

Fellow campaigners at Age Concern agree that the new moves are
unnecessarily bureaucratic.

“We believe the basic state pension is still the best way to end
pensioner poverty,” according to a spokesperson. The charity is
calling for the non-means tested basic state pension to be
increased to at least £90 a week for a single person and
£135 a week for a couple, plus housing costs. The state
pension should also be maintained at levels that mean older
people’s standard of living keeps pace with that of the rest of the
population. For 2001/2, the state pension for a single person has
been set at £72.50 per week – almost £20 below the
charity’s target.

Also in campaigners’ sights is long-term care, specifically free
personal care, as recommended by the Royal Commission on the
subject. Throughout the passage of the health and social care bill
through parliament the government in London has stubbornly refused
to give in to calls to implement the commission’s recommendation
that nursing and personal care should be paid for by the state. In
Wales, Plaid Cymru added its voice to campaign for free care. The
Scottish parliament’s decision to fund personal care turned up the
heat but still ministers at Westminnster stand firm. The health and
social care bill will mean free nursing care for those in care
homes but personal care will remain means-tested.

Campaigners do not expect to see a sudden u-turn. “It’s very
disappointing that there’s been no movement on free personal care
in the bill. Not even on widening the definition of nursing care
which is far too narrow,” says Pauline Thompson, policy officer
with Age Concern.

“Labour would like the health and social care bill to be the
last word on the subject,” says one campaigner. “They’ve rammed it
through the commons and made a lot of MPs in their own party very
unhappy. But no one’s prepared to rock the boat before an

On the health front, Labour hopes the National Service Framework
for Older People, announced in March, will address complaints about
age discrimination in the NHS. The reappearance of matrons on wards
is another move designed to woo older voters. Whether or not it is
successful remains to be seen.

Labour must also combat the perceived exclusion of older people
in one of its central policies – tackling social inclusion. Critics
complain that while the social exclusion unit has beavered away on
teenage pregnancies and homelessness, older people as a group have
been overlooked.

The SEU acknowledges that some older people are at
disproportionate risk of falling into poverty and are subjected to
discrimination when it comes to jobs. But the next two pieces of
work the SEU will undertake are on the education of children in
care and transport – it can only be hoped that the latter study
will bring about the improvements the grey lobby wants.

Whatever the parties finally commit themselves to in their
manifestos, politicians ignore the concerns of older people at
their peril – even in a slack year, they are twice as likely to
vote as young adults. As all the political parties battle with an
apathetic electorate, they would do well not to forget that



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