The plight and the condition of elderly people will worsen as the cold weather becomes colder and prices continue to rise in the shops. I pay tribute to those in my constituency who are collecting items of food, especially at the doors of supermarkets, to use to make Christmas parcels for the elderly. Many young people are involved in that charitable work and their dedication deserves special recognition.
With all the activity of the Christmas season, people are inclined to forget that our senior citizens may be having a difficult time. Some face spending Christmas day alone at home. The shops may be piled high with all sorts of delectable food but the pensioner who has only the old age pension on which to live will face the recurring problem of deciding what he or she can afford to spend on meals and other necessities. The shops may be ablaze with electric lighting, with a seemingly wanton disregard for the cost, but in the homes of the elderly there will be a cautious use of an electric fire, for example, which can quickly demand all the money which the pensioner has allocated for heating. Rarely do we hear senior citizens complaining bitterly, but their needs require more consideration than we currently give them.
Television is the only form of entertainment for many people. It provides a window through which they can observe the world at large. It provides companionship for the lonely as well as entertainment. In other words, ii is good for the morale of the elderly and the lonely, and what is good for their morale must be good for their state of health. That is why I repeat once again, and without apology, a passionate plea to the Government to provide free television licenses for pensioners.
It is imperative that pensioners should be encouraged to remain, if at all possible, in their own homes rather than removing themselves to residential homes. So long as they can fend for themselves, with adequate assistance from carers and visiting doctors and nurses, home is the best place for them. Pensioners are less likely to become disorientated if they remain in the house they know, with all their possessions, in an area they know and where they are known. This means providing more carers to look after the elderly, and that provision is vital.
It must be emphasised, however, that numerous pensioners can manage well on their own, without assistance from outside, providing that they receive sufficient money to pay for proper heating and sufficient food, but there must be something extra. They need and deserve to be treated with sympathy and understanding.
I shall refer to one example to highlight the callous way in which the elderly are sometimes treated. Last weekend, a pensioner of 69 years of age appealed to me for help. The lady, who lives alone, was feeling desperate. In my opinion, she had every right to be distraught. She lives in an old cottage where she was born. Her 69 years have been spent in that cottage, her only home. Until her father's death, he had worked on the estate of which the cottage is part. The cottage was provided for him, his wife and his daughter. When he died, about 20 years ago, the agent for the trustees of the estate made an offer to his daughter that she could dispense with paying rent if she accepted responsibility for all repairs to the cottage.
I think that that was a deliberately astute move on the part of the landlord. It was made to avoid the landlord accepting rent and to burden my constituent with the cost of repairs which she could never hope to meet. When the move was made, the cottage was already very old and sub-standard. It was in acute need of extensive renovation work. The lady was unable to pay for major repairs. If the agents had accepted rent, it would have been extremely low in view of the condition of the cottage. If they had accepted rent, the lady should have gone to the trustees to force them to make the cottage satisfy minimum standards.
I shall describe the cottage. It has no kitchen. There is a cooker sitting in the living room. There is no supply of water in the cottage. There is no tap, either inside or outside. There is no bathroom and no lavatory, either inside or outside the cottage, other than an old earth closet. No work has been carried out on the cottage since it was built in the last century. Presumably her father would have lost his job on the estate if he had had the temerity to complain about the conditions in the cottage. The only modern convenience is electricity, which the lady's mother had installed at her own expense.
Those matters should have been dealt with by the trustees of the estate many, many years ago. Windows and doors have rotted and need replacing; wooden floors need to be replaced; the plaster both inside and outside the cottage is cracking; and there is rising damp in all the rooms. The agents for the trustees of the estate knew about those conditions, but did nothing. They are now using them as an excuse for turning an elderly woman out of her home. Once she is out, no doubt they will sell the half acre of land in which the cottage sits, and at the cost of her misery they will make a substantial sum of money, because it is in such a beautiful setting. To her credit, the elderly lady has maintained the place to the best of her ability.
The trustees of that large estate are not interested—and, in my opinion, never were interested—in renovating the cottage. They want to get that poor lady out of the home in which she was born and in which she has lived all her life. The cottage could be renovated at a cost of about £9,000. Most of that would be funded by a grant from the Housing Executive. Instead of that, the agents for the trustees of that large estate—which is not short of a pound or two—asked the public health officer for a demolition order on the cottage.
Anyone acquainted with the case will know that the agents wanted an order so that the cottage could be demolished, and the woman would have to go somewhere else to live. They would then be free to make full use of the land. The lady has been offered a tenancy by the Housing Executive, but it is an hour's walk from the church with which she has been associated throughout her life. She has made that church the centre of her life and she is involved in all the church activities. She is an active member of the local women's institute. If she cannot attend those activities, she will feel isolated. That is disgraceful.
Where is there any sign of compassion in these sordid events? The lady has pleaded with the agents for the trustees not to take away her home. I join her in that plea in this House. I urge the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to intervene and rescind the demolition order. The trustees should be persuaded to apply for public money —they do not need to use their own money, even though they have sufficient funds—to put the cottage in order. That will allow that 69-year-old lady to spend the twilight of her years in the cottage in which she was born. Of course, in due course the trustees will be able to sell the property, so they will benefit substantially in the long term.