Party conferences are over for another year. A large number of
fringe meetings looked at the crisis in pensions and explored when
or whether the NHS will deliver the goods.

The Liberal Democrats morning on older people was consigned to the
graveyard slot, but it was time well spent. Two motions were
passed:one looking at women’s pensions and the plight of those who
only paid the “married woman’s stamp”; and the other calling for
better measures to combat elder abuse.

At Labour’s conference Alan Milburn arrived late and left early
from dozens of fringe meetings. He came with a single message,
which he bluntly drove home. The money is in place, the strategy is
in place, so wait for the results, but remember Rome wasn’t built
in a day.

The same was true of Liam Fox’s contribution to the Conservative
conference – community care was scarcely showcased. Pensions were
discussed by David Willetts, who acknowledged the poverty of the
over-75s and pledged an improvement in their incomes. The
interesting thing about the Conservatives was their explicit goal
to reach out to and re-engage with the voluntary and community
sector, and to use its local government base to drive that idea

So how to weigh up the conference season? There is a consensual
position emerging from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives
on pensions. Nearly every pension lobby group is bemoaning the
complexity of the state system. If Andrew Smith, secretary of state
for work and pensions, fails to reflect this in his forthcoming
green paper, it is likely to be coolly received. But, of course,
much of the complexity has emanated from Gordon Brown, and been
sold as central to Labour’s anti-poverty strategy. Yet even the
government has begun to describe the minimum income guarantee as
the first step, and the pension credit as the next step, thus
leaving open the option to take yet another step.

On the evidence of the past three weeks, all the energies of health
spokespersons are being devoted to the state of the hospitals and
the treatment of patients; all the language is about the medical
model, with varying degrees of emphasis on the ways of providing
more choice and delivering higher standards. As lobbyists, we have
so far failed to make community care a high-profile issue.

Ironically, the Blackpool tram system is one of the best examples
of community care. The conductors banter cheerfully with their
largely elderly passengers, help them to negotiate the steep steps
and other awkward features of the 70-year-old vehicles, support
people with sticks and shopping bags, and ensure that everyone is
safely seated before the tram moves off. I don’t suppose Alan
Milburn had time to take the tram. Pity.

Mervyn Kohler is head of public affairs, Help the

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