My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the gracious Speech and to the three excellent maiden speeches that we have heard today. I want to say a few words about the invisible generation, usually labelled as “the elderly”, and like many Members of your Lordships’ House, I have to declare an interest.
As the elderly, we are constantly reminded that we carry a high maintenance cost in respect of health, pensions and of course welfare support. We struggle with our technology and are sometimes described as non-productive consumers. Mostly ignored are the positive contributions made to society by the elderly. They are carers of a husband or wife, and sometimes of grandchildren and other relatives and friends; they are the providers of support for neighbours less able than themselves; they are minders of children whose parents are being told that they must go out to work. Very many give financial support to children and grandchildren who could not otherwise stay on at school, go to university, buy a house or pay a deposit on a rented property. They are the silent army, making up an estimated 30% of all volunteers for a wide range of organisations and often filling in the gaps in care homes, hospitals, hospices, schools and more.
Yet increasingly they are denigrated by politicians and the news media. The retirement pension to which they have contributed during their working life is now a benefit, which many politicians would like to see means-tested. The elderly are criticised for taking a free prescription and bus pass, a free television licence at aged 75 and the winter fuel payment that many of us in any case hand over to charity. For many, the loss of the travel pass would mean isolation. They would be unable to visit families and friends, get to the shops or the post office, or travel to their voluntary activities, particularly in rural areas. Bus routes would be closed.
Those who could afford to use a car would be castigated for not being environmentally friendly.
Nearly every debate on issues affecting the elderly starts with the precursor “the problem is”. What a difference it would make to start such a debate by merely saying “the issues are”. The fact is that Britain is woefully underprepared for the rising numbers of elderly people. We are told on the one hand to welcome the fact that we are all living longer while on the other hand that it is not affordable. For those with retirement in sight, there is mass confusion. We have had the Turner and Dilnot reports, and the report of the Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change. Is it any wonder that fear and insecurity is the approach of many for their retirement plans?
At what age will they be able to retire? Who knows? We saw a change flagged up in the gracious Speech, which prompted calls for another increase because in today’s world the elderly are healthier and so able to work longer. Quite suddenly, the elderly are among the shirkers with the curtains drawn who do not look for work. If they do, they become the enemies of the young, who fear that the jobs of tomorrow are being taken by the old of today. What of pensions? It is not unreasonable that many pensioners are wary of the provisions of private pensions having lost so much in past debacles, yet we are now treated as though we are responsible for the pension crisis.
One provision about which we are clear within the gracious Speech is that of the single-tier state pension, but can we please have a guarantee that recipients will not be told that this is a benefit for which they should be grateful rather than a pension for which they have paid? In March we heard from the Chancellor that the Government will introduce in 2016 a modified version of the proposals in the Dilnot review. Given the continual change in the retirement age and the state pension arrangements, early and clear decisions would be welcomed by those contemplating retirement.
The gracious Speech sadly missed the opportunity to confirm the welcome statement from the Chancellor that funding reforms for long-term care for the elderly will be introduced and that the maximum anyone will pay is £72,000. I am not clear what will happen to those who do not have £72,000. I am guessing that, as Dilnot proposed, they will be expected to sell part of the equity of their homes to pay for their needs—assuming they have homes. Currently, there are many cases of elderly people attempting to do that and risking large sums of money as a result. I fear that many will do so in future.
Many of those issues have been rehearsed in this House and in another place. I return to my original point. Old age is seen as a problem, and elderly people are seen as a liability. Those negative portrayals must change, not only for the elderly but for other groups labelled and taunted. There was a time when the target was immigrants and the unemployed. Then it was the turn of single parents and those on benefits. Over recent years, people with disabilities have been in the firing line. Now it is the turn of the elderly.
The denigration of groups and communities in our society must end soon. I very much regret that the gracious Speech made no reference to the Select Committee report,
Ready for Ageing
, which could be our compass for future travel into retirement. I, for one, hope that the Government will set out their analysis of the issues and challenges and their vision for public service in an ageing society, and that a White Paper is published well before the next general election.