My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for giving us the opportunity to debate such an important issue. I have enjoyed working and sharing interests with him over many years. I declare my interests as set out in the register, including at the ILCUK. In my remarks, I will refer to the wide-ranging recommendations of the Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision, of which I was a member. Although the media reporting focused on the recommendations on age-related tax and benefits, I remind the House that the committee also made recommendations on housing, training, employment and local communities to promote intergenerational fairness. This is important because there are beginning to be rumblings from younger people who feel that their generation is not being treated fairly compared with their parents’ generation. We must avoid intergenerational conflict or even resentment. Today’s older generations want to make sure that their children and grandchildren have better opportunities in life than they had, but sadly this is not the case.
Loneliness, as Age UK has pointed out, is a long-standing problem. It should be of great concern to us all that the number of lonely older people may rise from 1.4 million to 2 million very soon. Next week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia, which I co-chair, will publish a report on disability and dementia. Its central theme is that dementia is a disability recognised in both UK law and international conventions. The report makes a number of recommendations, including on transport, where it points out that any changes to bus and community transport services should be reviewed in the context of the public sector equality duty, which I strongly support. We need to think about how that might be expanded somewhat. Access to public transport is a lifeline for many older and disabled people—to visit friends and family, and to get to GP and hospital appointments. That is why I support free local travel for pensioners.
I am also proud to be an ambassador for the Silver Line charity, which does so much to try to reverse the trend towards increased loneliness and isolation. Last year, the ILC with the Just Group awarded an innovation prize to the Chatty Cafe scheme. It encourages cafes to have a “chatter and natter” table so that customers who want to engage with other people can do so. We need to get people to talk to each other because it is very important.
The Government’s loneliness strategy, published in October 2018, is therefore a welcome policy response to a very big problem. Among its specific recommendations was a greater focus on the role and importance of social prescribing. Only last month I spoke at an Arts 4 Dementia conference about social prescribing and last year the ILCUK, with the support of the Utley Foundation, produced a report on the importance of music to guard against isolation. I therefore hope that the Government strategy will successfully embed tackling loneliness and isolation across government departments and that the evidence base on how we do so is improved by all stakeholders.
I turn now to age-related benefits. I have long believed that we need to redefine old age. It was why, when I set up the ILCUK, a think tank looking at the implications of an ageing society throughout the life course, we understood that age is no longer a good proxy for policy-making. People differ enormously in their capacity to work, to volunteer and to be more or less active throughout their older lives, which can now span 30 or 40 years, making generalisations meaningless. It would be like making policy for everyone aged from birth to 40 as though they were one homogenous group. That really would be a bit silly. We now have comprehensive age discrimination legislation, which covers not only work but the provision of goods and services. This ought to protect older people. Many are very experienced and senior workers, which is why I believe people should be defined by their circumstances, not by their age. If an older person is working, they should be seen not as a pensioner but as a worker, and an experienced worker at that.
The intergenerational fairness Select Committee made some sensible and pragmatic recommendations, seeking to strike a balance between the generations while at the same time taking account of rising longevity and the increasing number of older people. On the TV licence, we recommended that free licences based on age alone should be phased out. Rather than passing the decision to the BBC, it should be for the Government to decide. I regret that the BBC has been put in this invidious position. We also suggested that free bus passes and the winter fuel payment should be available only five years after state pension age from 2048.
We need to do things differently. Tomorrow’s older people will be older in a very different society from that of today or the recent past. We also need to keep in mind that isolation and loneliness are not age-related per se, and it is our fault as a society if people remain a huge problem because they are old. We must tackle it—it is a responsibility we all share.