I will finish the introduction, Mr Sheridan, and then I will call you.
Those members who wish to contribute to the debate should please press their request-to-speak buttons now.
I have already informed the Presiding Officer's office that the Scottish Coalition for Justice not War has asked for the observance of a minute's silence today at 11 am in memory of all those who have been killed so far in the conflict in Iraq. No disrespect is meant to any member who is speaking at that time, but some members will observe a minute's silence then.
We have no wish to diminish the feelings of people on the subject, Mr Sheridan, but there is a public demonstration throughout Edinburgh and I suggest that the appropriate place to observe a minute's silence is with the people of Edinburgh. We will come to that at the appropriate time. I call Margaret Curran to speak to and move the motion.
This is an historic moment for the Parliament—although I think that I have said that in most of the debates in which I have spoken, which have been historic for one reason or another. However, this truly is an historic moment, as it is the last debate in this session of Parliament—it is a great privilege to speak in it. It is particularly appropriate that we are focusing on older people, because that signals the importance of that area of work and of that key group in our population, not only to the Executive—which I will talk about in my speech—but to the Parliament.
Undoubtedly, the debate will, by definition, be
When the Scottish Parliament was established, levels of poverty and exclusion were a blight on our country. I would not like to disappoint Keith Harding in my last formal speech from the podium—I really should rant about the Tories at this point, but it seems too early in the morning for that and I might save my passion for a wee bit later, if he will forgive me. [MEMBERS: "Oh!"] There is an offer that he cannot refuse. I will leave my condemnation of the Tories until later in the debate.
I want to talk about the significant steps that the Executive is taking to consign the Tory years and poverty to the past. We have shown our determination to close the opportunity gap, so that those who are most at risk can make real choices and make the most of the opportunities that our society should present to them.
That question gives me a pleasurable opportunity to say that perhaps the best thing that has happened to this country in the past five years has been Gordon Brown's prudent economic approach, which has led to unparalleled investment, unparalleled opportunities for our older people and a level of income for older people that the Tories could never have dreamed of. I am more than proud to celebrate the achievements of Gordon Brown. That is not bad: two minutes into my speech and I am ranting. Self-awareness is a great thing.
The Executive has shown its determination to close the opportunity gap. Often, as I have debated with my colleagues on the SNP benches and with Lyndsay McIntosh, who may not be taking part in the debate today—
Yes, she is. We have debated poverty on many occasions in the Parliament. Those debates have been robust, enjoyable and thorough, but they have often tended to focus on
However, it is also important that we do not do that at the expense of understanding the impact of poverty on older citizens and the need to improve services and direct resources for that key part of the population. It is appropriate that today's debate focuses on how we have begun to close the opportunity gap for older people. If I have one theme, it is: much done, still more to do. I am sure that members are familiar with that theme, because we have made significant achievements but recognise that there is still some way to go.
We have moved many people out of poverty and provided them with the means for a better life. We are ensuring that, as people get older, they can continue to enrich Scotland with their skills, experience, energy and enthusiasm. Our vision is to ensure that every person beyond working age has a decent quality of life. Therefore, our long-term goals are to ensure that older people are financially secure, to increase the number of older people who enjoy active, healthy and independent lives and to help older people to access opportunities and choices that our society offers to everyone.
We must think of older people not only in terms of their needs, but in terms of what they can offer. Too often in the past, we have regarded elderly citizens as passive recipients of services, but we should encourage elderly citizens to be proactive in shaping the society around them. At present, 1.7 million Scots are over 50. That significant proportion of our population makes an invaluable contribution to the cultural, economic and social fabric of the nation. I will talk more about that later.
As people get older, a range of support is necessary to allow them to continue to play a full and active role in society. Along with the United Kingdom Government and other partners, we aim to provide that support. Two weeks ago, we announced with the Department for Work and Pensions that, between 1996-97 and 2001-02, 80,000 pensioners were lifted out of relative income poverty and 170,000 were lifted out of absolute income poverty. That is a fall in the proportion of pensioners living in income poverty from 29 per cent to 20 per cent in relative terms. In only five years, that must be regarded as a major success.
Given the improvement in overall economic conditions, and with medium-income figures rising by 19 per cent, those are particularly encouraging statistics that underline our commitment to provide financial security. By April, the minimum income guarantee will ensure that no pensioner will have
All pensioners have the benefit of the £200 winter fuel payment and the over-75s receive free television licences, which are currently worth £112 a year. Furthermore, we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and the voluntary sector in the partnership against poverty. That group is focused on improving the uptake of social security benefits available to older people throughout Scotland.
Not all older people are pensioners and it is essential that we take advantage of the experience, knowledge and skills of the over-50s work force. The employment rate for the over-50s is improving. In 2002, it stood at 64 per cent, but that is still below the average for working-age people in Scotland, which is 73 per cent. We want to close that gap to give older people the opportunity to get back into work and to use their skills. That can often mean giving people advice and training them in new skills. Great Britain schemes, such as the new deal 50 plus, can and do help older people to find their way back into the workplace. So far, 11,500 jobs have been found on that scheme in Scotland.
We can also record our achievements with initiatives that not only improve the quality of life for older people, but have the added benefit of reducing daily living expenses. The Scottish Executive is committed to ensuring—as far as is reasonably practical—that people will not live in fuel poverty within 15 years. We are on track to achieve that commitment.
I refer back to the bad Tory years—they were not so long ago that we cannot remember what it was like when people were living in damp, cold houses and could not afford to pay their bills. Our commitment to eradicating fuel poverty and to having it within our grasp is probably one of the Executive's most significant achievements.
Fuel poverty exists as a result of a number of factors—income, fuel costs and the energy efficiency of the home. We are taking action on all three factors. We have talked about the increasing prosperity of our older people. The UK Government has reduced VAT on domestic fuel and we have made great strides on energy efficiency. Through the central heating programme, around 18,000—
We have all received a briefing from Help the Aged this morning. Given the work that the
I have not seen the Help the Aged briefing and I am wise enough not to endorse figures that I have not seen. Let me make our position abundantly clear. We have said that fuel poverty cannot be turned around in a year or so, but we have a long-term commitment to its eradication. No Government has ever made that historic commitment before. I know that the organisations that work on fuel poverty have said that that is a significant achievement and have congratulated us on our commitment to eradicate fuel poverty.
One of the most significant emblems of that commitment has been the central heating programme, which we have debated in the chamber before. It will be a lasting testament to the significant work of the Executive that older people have central heating in their homes that they would not have had before. Nearly 10,000 pensioners in Scotland have central heating because of the Executive's work. The Tories abandoned them and we did not.
Transco is heavily involved in delivering, on behalf of the Executive, the central heating programme for pensioners and others. Representatives of Transco have told me twice in the past six months that there are 2,500 too few technicians and that the programme cannot be delivered because the Executive is not training people. Moreover, does the minister agree that it was astonishing that Iain Gray said yesterday that unemployment in the older age group is going down when the fact is that those people are being forced to go to work because they cannot afford to live without working?
My God, it will be quite a debate if the Tories are going to start defending the unemployed. The Conservatives are experienced in issues relating to massive levels of unemployment. I will take no lectures about unemployment from them.
Success brings its own challenges. Because we have economic prosperity and many opportunities, we require more skilled people. The construction boom in Glasgow is just one example of that. We need to keep training the engineers to deliver the central heating programme, but I am reliably informed that we are on target to deliver the work force that is required to install the central heating. Although the entire programme will be completed by March 2006, local authorities will complete their part of the programme by April 2004, which is two years earlier than planned. That means that the programme cannot be in that much disarray.
The warm deal contributes to energy savings. Our programme for government target to insulate 100,000 houses by March 2002 was achieved almost 18 months ahead of schedule. There are now 137 more energy-efficient homes. New building standards that were enforced this month mean that Scotland now has the highest mandatory standards for energy efficiency for new homes in the UK.
Taken together, the measures will provide, on average, annual savings on bills of £290 for those aged over 60 and £350 for those in local authority housing association properties. The measures are not just about saving money; they are also about having a warm, dry home. We all know the contribution that that makes to closing the opportunity gap.
On another front, if older people are to maintain active social, cultural, educational and working lives, it is essential that public transport is available, accessible and affordable. Last year, Iain Gray and Lewis Macdonald introduced free local off-peak bus travel for more than 1 million elderly and disabled people throughout Scotland. Again, that is an historic commitment and a key delivery for the Scottish Executive.
I must press on, as I do not want to run out of time. We can pursue some of those issues later.
Helping our older people to be more active is part of our strategy to improve their overall quality of life. Our efforts in that regard begin with listening to older people to find out what they want. In the past, once people became less able to manage for themselves, it was felt that the best solution was for them to go into care. From listening to older people, we know that they often prefer to live independently in their own homes. Earlier this month, we announced £200 million of funding during the first year of the supporting people programme, which is another major progressive delivery of support services. That new policy for housing support services will make all the difference for older people and others in enabling them to stay in their own home rather than having to go into care. Around 100,000 people are likely to be helped.
Vulnerable people will be given the assistance that they need to keep their home, live more independently and feel secure. It will not matter whether they live in a flat, a house, sheltered accommodation or a hostel, whether they live on their own or share, or whether they own their home or rent from a landlord. The care-and-repair scheme for elderly and other vulnerable people allows improvements, repairs and adaptations to
We are closing the opportunity gap for older people not only in their individual households, but in the community, because that is what older people's organisations tell us that we must do. We must ensure that the needs of elderly people are centre stage in all our policies.
Safety is an important element of our regeneration agenda. Older people must be safe and must feel safe in their own communities. It is not acceptable that there is an effective curfew on older people in their communities, where they do not feel that they can use their own streets at night. If there is one aim that we must pursue, it is that elderly people can reclaim their own communities and live properly and safely in them.
That is why Jim Wallace has provided record numbers of police to deal with violence, drug crime and housebreaking. We have introduced youth courts and fast-track hearings to tackle youth crime and have introduced more than 2,000 additional closed-circuit television cameras to help to prevent crime and to make our communities safer. At the other end of the spectrum, we have provided support to Age Concern Scotland's elder abuse project. We have also committed £20 million to rolling out my proposal for the community wardens scheme and £10 million to other community-based initiatives that will allow us to contribute to safer communities.
We know that good health and quality of life go hand in hand. Promoting good health for Scots of all ages has been a top priority for the Executive. By encouraging older people to improve their diet and to take regular exercise, we can help them to avoid debilitating illnesses and to retain their independence for as long as possible. We have some way to go—there is no doubt about that—but recent statistics are encouraging. Between 1997 and 2001, deaths per 100,000 for under-75s from coronary heart disease fell by 25 per cent. In that age group, deaths from stroke fell by 16 per cent and deaths from cancer fell by 4.8 per cent over that period.
Last week, Malcolm Chisholm launched the health improvement challenge paper, which sets out a framework for action. It focuses on the key risk factors, all of which affect older people. We are determined to accelerate the rate of health improvement and to reduce health inequalities by improving the health of our most disadvantaged communities, because we know that that will impact on the opportunities of older people.
Last month, along with many colleagues from the Executive, the First Minister launched "Let's Make Scotland More Active: A strategy for physical activity". We will encourage older people to participate in physical activity, so that they can
One of the Executive's most significant policies has been the introduction of free personal and nursing care for people aged 65 and over. The Executive has taken away the burden of financial worry from more than 75,000 pensioners. That means that they can be confident that they will get the level of personal care and support that they deserve, which will give them dignity and security. A critical part of creating a fairer Scotland is that we ensure that free personal care delivers and works. The Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002, which the Parliament passed, represents a major step forward in improving the arrangements for community care in Scotland.
Older people rarely need the services of just one agency, but it is at the boundaries between agencies that we have perhaps faced difficulties in the past. Older people do not particularly care which agency provides a service, but we must ensure that all the agencies meet their needs. In community care, we have been making major strides towards integrated responses by implementing the joint future agenda. That agenda is about better local integrated services and about how the national health service and local authority resources should be used jointly. Older people in some areas are already benefiting from better and faster assessments, access to a wide range of services from a single entry point and more co-ordinated responses to their general needs. Those benefits should be available more widely and, by April 2004, we will be applying the same principles to all community care.
We should always be careful not to stereotype older people, because their needs and issues extend far beyond basic care and support. If we are sincere about valuing our older people, we must provide the conditions that allow them to play the active role that I talked about.
The minister mentioned stereotyping older people. Does she agree that the experience of older women can be very different from that of older men? Given their work patterns when they were younger and their lack of a pension, older women are more likely to be low paid and are certainly more likely to be carers. In my constituency, there are many grandmothers looking after the children of drug-abusing parents. Does the Scottish Executive have a strategy to address the specific needs of women pensioners, who may be among the most vulnerable of our older people?
I thank Johann Lamont for introducing another theme that is dear to my heart. In the equality strategy, we have now recognised that age is itself a key determination. We have to
The lifelong learning strategy is significant for ensuring that elderly people get their fair opportunities. I emphasise the need to ensure that digital inclusion extends to the elderly population. We have committed ourselves to providing public internet access points to ensure that elderly people, too, can access the web. Age Concern Scotland is working with us to identify target venues that may be particularly geared towards older people.
One of the most significant aspects of my work lies in recognising the contribution that elderly people make, through volunteering, to services provided for other people. Often, it is elderly people who run lunch clubs, for example. That breaks down the stereotypes around older people. We must ensure that older people get their fair share in our voluntary sector and volunteering strategies.
We recognise that older people in rural communities face particular challenges. The report of the rural poverty and inclusion working group highlighted the issues around poverty and social exclusion for older people living in rural areas. It is important that we pursue those issues.
Listening to older people is a key plank of our approach. If the Government does not listen to the people, we often get the policies wrong. If we work in partnership, we can move towards much more radical policies. There is some evidence that we have done that. Frank McAveety set up and chairs the older people's consultative forum, which provides a basis for partnership working with older people, who can tell us about the barriers that they face, the additional opportunities that they want to have and how they want to contribute. I am sure that they laugh at Frank's jokes and that the meetings are most entertaining, but the forum allows us to develop an agenda for taking forward that partnership working.
This is the last Executive debate of this first
There are 944,000 people of pensionable age in Scotland—about 19 per cent of the total estimated Scottish population. By 2026, there will be about 1.3 million people of pensionable age, or approximately 27 per cent of the total Scottish population. Life expectancy stands at 72.9 years for men and 78.2 years for women. As was recently reported, those figures are, sadly, among the lowest in western Europe.
Despite the advances that have been made, of the 641 mainland parliamentary constituencies in Britain, 10 of the 20 poorest are in Glasgow, so there are certain areas of health inequality still to be addressed. That will take not just years but generations. A majority of people of pensionable age are female, because of women's longer life expectancy. As a result, many of them will live alone and will consequently suffer high morbidity rates.
We would all agree that many of the attitudes held by some people in our society towards older people must change. Jess Barrow, head of policy at Age Concern Scotland, said:
"Some of the ways we treat old people we just would not accept for any other section of society."
Unfortunately, the European Union is not due to implement anti-ageism legislation until 2006. A recent King's Fund guide found that ageism is difficult to identify because people are not used to having to recognise it, given the lack of anti-discrimination legislation that is related to age, unlike that which exists for race or gender for
"this country treats older people as if they are on the scrap-heap"— and almost half believe that
"old people in this country are considered to be a burden on society."
Ageism, or discrimination against older people, may not consist of deliberate sentiments against older persons, but may involve them being patronised through ignorance of their need to be treated as fairly as everyone else. The Executive has set up an equalities strategy, the older people's unit and the older people's consultative forum, and it is great to see the forum's chair, the esteemed Frank McAveety, here today. However, more must be done to reverse the deep-rooted social acceptance of patronising and discriminatory behaviour towards older people so that we treat them with the respect that they deserve.
Age discrimination occurs because a low value is associated with older people's lives. The idea exists that older people had their chance and that their quality of life, as an older person, is not worth saving as much as that of a younger person. Some people believe that older people are a burden to others, such as their family or friends or the NHS.
Many older people do not face only discrimination as a result of their age. They may also suffer from multiple problems due to age and disability—indeed, they may face discrimination on the ground of disability. As Ros Levenson, author of "Auditing Age Discrimination: A practical approach to promoting equality in health and social care" stated:
"Tackling age discrimination is too low on the agenda for many health and social care organisations. But ageism is a serious equality issue."
I am pleased that the minister touched on that matter.
Of course, the majority of older people are fit and healthy and should not be thought of merely as a burden on the NHS. Health is one area of older people's lives in which they are likely to encounter both positive discrimination—for example, exemption from prescription charges—and negative discrimination, such as age limits for transplant services in the NHS. Executive targets for reducing the incidence of cancer, heart disease and stroke apply only to those below the age of 75. In the words of Maureen O'Neill, the director of Age Concern Scotland, that approach will "entrench these inequalities". My colleague Kay Ullrich will explore the impact of health care on elderly people in greater detail, as it is an important issue for older people.
Some initiatives are proactive, but they will not make a difference until other problems in the care of older people are rectified. One survey—"Hard Times: A study of pensioner poverty" contained the following message from an older person:
"Thank you very much for my free TV licence but I would really like to have my cataracts done so that I could see the television."
A quarter of suicides occur in older people, although they make up less than a quarter of the general population. Ninety per cent of those concerned had serious depression and most visited their doctor in the three months prior to their death. That may indicate that general practitioners are not taking the mental health needs of older people seriously. I encountered that problem, especially in the treatment of depression, in a previous life. When older people who are suffering from depression visit a doctor, they are often given older drugs such as tricyclic antidepressants, which can dope and slow down older people, making them more liable to falls and so on. Younger people, who tend to work or have families, receive drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which cost 20 times more per day than the drugs that are given to older people. I encountered that apartheid in primary health care on many occasions before I was elected to the Parliament, which may want to examine that issue.
Long-stay hospitals have closed in favour of treating older people in the community, and that is to be welcomed. Implementing the joint futures agenda to provide more seamless care between the NHS, local authorities and community and social care has reduced the number of delayed discharges. As the minister indicated, the Parliament has introduced free personal care for the elderly and the regulation of care services in Scotland. However, although welcoming the progress that free personal care is making in local authorities, a recent Age Concern Scotland report argued that there was a continuing need to publicise it and to provide clarity about the policy. The report found that there is a postcode lottery in available care places and that waiting times for care provision vary. Its authors were also very concerned about long-term funding.
Scottish Care, the Executive and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities need to renegotiate funding for private care homes, before older people who require care become the innocent victims of the crisis in funding in community care. Their human rights may be breached. As Tessa Harding, head of policy at Help the Aged, states:
"Homes have to be closed with care ... if the Human Rights Act is not to be breached ... Where are these residents to go? There is already a major crisis in the care home sector and few areas have spare capacity."
Bedblocking remains a problem. Some 2,798 patients are awaiting hospital discharge, 239 of whom have waited more than 12 months. If the Executive does not find it acceptable for people to wait more than 12 months to get into hospital, why is it acceptable for them to wait more than 12 months to get out? In addition, the number of people receiving a home-care service has declined since 1999 by 7,357, and the number of residential care places has fallen from 16,300 to 15,150, which is a decline of 1,150.
An issue in which many MSPs have been interested in the past few years is that of Scotland's carers. There are approximately 626,000 carers in Scotland and about one in six is over 65. Two thirds of carers look after elderly people. It is therefore vital that we take on board the considerations of older people and carers and end the opportunity gap for carers, older people and older carers.
Benefit provision for Scottish older people, which is reserved to Westminster, is necessary to reduce and prevent poverty. Two thirds of pensioner households do not claim state benefits—of course, some are not entitled to them—but an estimated 57 per cent require some form of state benefit. Unfortunately, almost a quarter of those who are eligible do not claim. Indeed, 50,000 pensioners who are entitled to the means-tested minimum income guarantee do not claim it. Each person who has not claimed it is really entitled to an average increase of £18 in their weekly income at present, which would raise their pension levels to more than £90 on average—that was the amount that Age Concern stated was necessary in 2001. The minimum that we can guarantee is an admission that the basic state pension is inadequate to live on. Pensioners might not collect benefits because there might be a stigma attached to claiming them among older people, but it is also likely that the process is time-consuming and confusing for some of our older people.
Does Mr Gibson agree that it would be far better to raise the basic pension level, including the amount of money that people have to apply for through the bureaucratic system of means testing? That would avoid the problem that many pensioners face of having to work their way through a system that is bureaucratically inclined, favours the employment of even more civil servants and does not get the money to where it should go.
I believe that the basic pension should be raised. However, I am astonished that the Conservatives did not address that issue when they were in power. They decoupled the relationship between earnings and pensions. [ Interruption. ] As Frank McAveety has just shouted out, they had only 18 years in which to address
An Age Concern members' survey said:
"Ageing persons do not welcome complicated forms to fill in— as Mr Davidson rightly said—
"What they hope for is minimal fuss when they find themselves obliged to call in financial help in these matters."
In 1999, a Scottish Executive survey of older people's needs and services found that there was a lack of knowledge about services and how to access them and that that was a major reason for unmet need. People tended not to approach social services for help and advice, and information did not appear to be readily available to them.
The Executive has produced a welcome document, "Are You Over 50?", to serve as a guide for older people to the service provision that is available to them, but it does not go far enough. A more widely publicised campaign for benefit take-up in Scotland is required. Alice Jarvie of SeniorLine in Scotland states that calls to SeniorLine
"reflect older people's confusion about exactly what they are entitled to."
That is particularly important, because changes to the way in which benefits are paid are to be implemented next month. Benefits are reserved, but education about them is not. Pensions are also reserved to the Department for Work and Pensions, but pensioner poverty, which is an important issue for Scottish older people, is devolved.
Minimum income benefits should enable pensioners to have a reasonable standard of living, but benefit take-up problems continue to be rife. Women who are over the age of 65 are less likely to have an occupational pension, because of career breaks for children. The fact that women are likely to live longer through retirement means that they experience particular issues relating to poverty. Today, fewer than half of people of working age contribute to a non-state pension. As members are all well aware, there is a £27 billion hole in pension provision in the United Kingdom, because of the volatile nature of the pensions market. I am sure that the Conservatives will focus heavily on that issue. I must contradict the minister, as I do not believe that current Government policies have helped to produce stability in that area. That is ominous for the future, especially as the Scottish Executive's social justice annual report showed that it had failed to increase the number of working-age people who contribute to a non-state pension, which is
Poverty and the number of pensioners who live in poverty are major issues of concern. Relative poverty is the issue that we should debate, in common with other European nations. I will not argue that case, as I have very little time left.
The Scottish Executive stated:
"the poorest families have experienced real increases in their living standards since 1996/97."
On the contrary, a study on Scottish poverty by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which was published just a few months ago, concluded that in the seven years between 1994 and 2001,
"the overall sense is one of little change".
Given that I am running out of time, I will jump ahead in my speech to an issue that has not been mentioned a great deal. I am sure that my colleagues will discuss poverty at some length, but I want to make a point about fuel poverty. I have some concerns about the Executive's line on fuel poverty. Four weeks ago, the minister issued a press release that said that some 20 local authorities had finished their central heating programmes. One of those local authorities was Glasgow City Council, which will not finish its programme for three years. When I pointed that out to officials, they said that the minister would release a retraction, but that has not happened. We must be concerned about spin on that issue.
The Conservatives quoted a figure on fuel poverty. I, too, have a figure: 25 per cent of our pensioners live in a household that is cold enough to put residents at risk of hypothermia. There is still a long way to go.
Older people are more likely than younger people to worry about being mugged or robbed. Although we know that older people are less likely to suffer from crime, fear of crime can be as much of a problem as crime itself. Forty-six per cent of people who are over 65 believe that crime in their area has got worse during the past two years. Between 7 and 10 per cent of older people are victims of some form of abuse, often from family members. The Parliament has not touched on that issue in recent years, but we should examine it, especially in light of the alarming information that Age Concern has provided, which indicates that reports of abuse of the elderly have increased by 400 per cent in the past year. Although that increase might be the result of greater awareness, it is a serious concern.
I would also like to discuss transport, but I have only 30 seconds left, so I will not.
In that case, I might mention it after
The Executive has introduced free local off-peak bus travel for older people, but there should be a coherent national concessionary fares scheme, as exists in Wales, so that older people are entitled to the same level of free travel no matter where they live or where they are travelling to. That would reduce confusion about concessions, which can catch older people short. In addition, reregulation of the bus service would help elderly people, particularly those in outlying communities.
We are all aware that age discrimination in employment can start at the age of 40. I am marginally over that age, although I will probably be the youngest member to speak in the debate.
My final point relates to our raison d'être. From a nationalist perspective, we find shocking the level of poverty in this country. If we look at the standard of living of pensioners in most other European countries of comparable size, it is clear that they get a better deal. That shows that nations can look after their own people if they have control over their own economies, benefits and taxation systems. Those nations are clearly the most prosperous and pensioners in Luxembourg, Sweden and Austria are all certainly better off than those in Scotland. The answer for Scotland's pensioners, as for Scotland's young people and the middle-aged, is independence.
I move amendment S1M-4064.2, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:
"notes that life expectancy in Scotland is among the lowest in the developed world; further notes that Scottish Executive health targets entrench age inequalities; accepts that ageism is a reality in modern Scotland and must be countered; is aware that 25% of Scottish pensioners live in poverty; acknowledges that more coherence to the concessionary fare scheme is required; seeks more flexibility in delivering the central heating programme; desires that the postcode lottery of free personal care places be ended; recognises that older people have a vital part to play in our democracy; is concerned at continuing reductions in the value of the state pension in real and relative terms; demands that the closure of final salary scheme pensions be addressed to prevent future generations of older people being left with low incomes, financial insecurity and dependent on means-tested benefits, and believes that to address the needs of older people in Scotland the Parliament needs the full powers of an independent sovereign state."
At the outset, I should perhaps declare an interest as I fall into the category of older people and my opportunity gap may well deteriorate in the near future. Having said that, I am absolutely delighted that the minister is present today. I will do my best to match the passion that she promised me.
I shall not patronise older people by lecturing them on which opportunities they should pursue. It is not the job of any politician to patronise older people with half-price tennis lessons or whatever the flavour of the month happens to be. Older people are more able than politicians are to decide such issues for themselves.
However, we need to ensure that older people are free to choose their opportunities. They must be free from Government discrimination against them. Sadly, over the past few years, older people have faced substantial discrimination as a result of Government policy. Older people do not want patronising assistance; they want dignity. The fact is that the Government has eroded the basic needs and expectations of pensioners, without which talk of opportunity means nothing.
Older people need to know that they can save for a pension without the fear that they are wasting their money. Gordon Brown's raid on the pension funds is a £5 billion per annum stealth tax on pensioners. That loss of hard-earned pension deprives current and future pensioners of the opportunity of a comfortable retirement. Gordon Brown's hand in the pensioners' till is depriving older people of real opportunity. Pensioners need to keep the money that they have saved, for their dignity and for other opportunities. They need to know that, if they make modest savings, they will keep £1 of every £1 that they save.
The so-called pension credit is about to be introduced, which will extend means testing to over half of all pensioners. With time, that proportion will increase further because the credit will be linked to national average earnings while the basic state pension will continue to increase only with prices. Means testing is humiliating to pensioners. It cannot be right to extend means testing to such a huge proportion of the pensioner population. People may say, "So what?" but the effect of the proposed change will be that a typical pensioner who has an annual income of £6,000 will, in effect, face a marginal tax rate of 40 per cent, which is equivalent to the rate for higher-rate taxpayers. For every extra £1 of pension or savings income, Gordon Brown will claw back 40p, so the pensioner will end up only 60p better off before income tax is taken into account.
Does Mr Harding accept that the
I agree. I was just about to make that point, more or less. It is unfair that a pensioner on a modest but average income faces a marginal tax rate of 40 per cent but a pensioner on double the income will be able to keep £1 of every £1 saved before tax.
Furthermore, why should people save at all? If the average pensioner will receive only 60p before tax of every £1 saved, it is no wonder that so many people will now not bother saving. The Government has created a climate in which savers are discouraged and punished and the effect is to deny pensioners opportunities.
The Government takes with one hand and gives back something with the other, but older people need to know that the national health service will care for them should they become ill. Waiting lists and waiting times have steadily increased over the past three years, even with the increased levels of funding from the Scottish Executive. In the period ending December 2002, 14,769 more people were on the waiting lists than in March 1999, 83,494 fewer out-patients were seen than in March 1999, 21 per cent fewer out-patients were seen within nine weeks and 12,700 fewer elective in-patients were seen.
Older people are discriminated against by the health system. Age discrimination occurs directly and indirectly through policies aimed at shortening length of stay in hospital, as older patients take longer than average to recover from surgery or illness. Age discrimination in health and social care must be rooted out to ensure that the most vulnerable are receiving the care that they need and are entitled to.
In the Executive's social inclusion strategy "Social Justice ... a Scotland where everyone matters", which was published in 1999, the Executive committed itself to increasing the number of older people taking exercise and to reducing the rates of mortality from coronary heart disease and the prevalence of respiratory disease.
However, the Executive's policies are failing the most vulnerable. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals that the standardised mortality rates among the 10 per cent most deprived local areas are double those of the least disadvantaged 50 per cent.
Older people also need to know that care home places will be available for them should they require one. However, the current care homes
Older people need to know that suitable and appropriate housing is available for them. The Executive maintains that it is committed to the transfer of council housing to community ownership. However, Labour in local government has failed the council tenant. Much of Scotland's public housing is still crumbling, and new investment is desperately needed. Mismanagement has led to large rent arrears for councils that are subsequently unable to provide the funding for repairs. For example, before the approval of the transfer of 81,000 houses in Glasgow to Glasgow Housing Association last April, more than 50 per cent of rent collected serviced existing debt. The total bill for repairs was estimated at £1.3 billion. I hope that that situation will now be resolved.
In 1980, the Conservatives introduced the right-to-buy scheme. No policy introduced since then has done more to lift the vulnerable out of relative poverty in Scotland. Thanks to successive Conservative Governments, the rate of home ownership is more than 60 per cent today, compared with only 35 per cent in 1979. Scottish Office research in 1997 showed that 21.5 per cent of the homes that had been bought since 1980 under the right to buy had subsequently been resold on the open market, and that improvements, including the installation of central heating, had been made to the vast majority of them. That shows that national schemes such as the central heating programme would not always be required if more homes were owner-occupied.
Let us not get carried away.
I know that the Conservatives were committed to the right-to-buy policy but, as ever, their approach was half-baked. There are now many people in Scotland who bought their houses under essentially false pretences, because the Conservatives encouraged people to buy irresponsibly. They did not point out to people their responsibilities for repairs to and maintenance of their houses. People were confused about that and there is now a major problem for people who do not have the income to maintain and repair
That is absolute rubbish. Whether people can afford repairs to and maintenance of their properties should be assessed by the mortgage lenders, which determine people's ability to fund a mortgage. The minister should take that into account. What is she doing to give people additional assistance?
That is just another consultation document.
The Executive has done little to assist in the provision of houses adapted specifically for elderly and disabled people, especially those in rural communities who doubly suffer from the lack of suitable housing. We would encourage local housing providers to provide adapted houses for older and disabled people through grants. We would also put in place a requirement for providers to make available for sheltered housing a minimum of 5 per cent of any new development. To increase rural housing stock, we propose to relax planning guidelines to allow the building of affordable homes for sale on the periphery of rural communities.
The Executive's warm deal initiative is a continuation of yet another Conservative policy—the home energy efficiency scheme—and was introduced in July 1999 to promote energy efficiency measures to less affluent families. The home energy efficiency scheme was very successful and assisted three million homes. Under successive Conservative Governments, the percentage of UK households with central heating rose from 60 per cent in 1981 to 90 per cent in 1997-98.
Indeed, many pensioners who have benefited from the Executive's central heating programme might have already been set to benefit, either from refurbishment schemes through the landlord or from new investment from transfers to community ownership. The Executive needs to take further measures to ensure that those who are eligible to benefit from the programme are given as much help as possible to follow that through. At present, there is a worry that the take-up rate among the elderly is too low and, given the disruption that the installation of a central heating system might cause, the Executive must articulate exactly how it will improve that rate.
Older people also want to be safe. The 2000 Scottish crime survey showed that just over 10 per
It is time to reclaim our neighbourhoods from the criminals who destroy communities and imprison fearful people in their homes. Older people should be able to walk through their communities free from the fear of crime. To make people feel safe, we must have a fully supported, fully manned police service, which would provide effective neighbourhood policing and give crime-ridden areas a constant and visible police presence. Our police officers should be backed up by a legal system that is able to dispose of criminals appropriately and efficiently, a prison service that rehabilitates and a youth justice system that prevents youngsters from reoffending.
Consideration should be given to increasing the single occupancy discount on council tax to 50 per cent for single older people. Furthermore, we should address age discrimination in the job market by allowing older people the option of signing away their rights under normal employment regulations other than basic health and safety regulations. That would encourage employers to recruit more people from that age group. However, such ideas are for the future.
We acknowledge that the Executive is committed to closing the opportunity gap. However, although some worth-while initiatives have been introduced to address the situation, a great deal more needs to be done.
I move amendment S1M-4064.1, to leave out from "by" to end and insert:
"but notes that its policies are not working, care homes are having to close due to a funding crisis, waiting lists and times are rising, more older people feel insecure in their homes and there is an insufficient level of provision of appropriate housing for older people and considers that, if the Chancellor was to abolish his punitive stealth tax on pension funds in the forthcoming budget, the opportunity gap for older people would be greatly reduced."
I welcome the minister's speech, especially the references to rural deprivation and rural exclusion. After all, transport and access to facilities are of massive importance to older people and the need is especially acute in rural areas. Before I go any further, I should declare an interest. Like Keith Harding, I am old,
Getting old is a rite of passage. When we reach our 50s, we suddenly start receiving Saga brochures. We resent them at first, but then we start looking at the rather attractive holidays that they offer. However, I have to say that I am not so keen on the advertisements for incontinence pads and things.
Then, at 60, we become eligible for the winter heating allowance. We all think, "I don't want that". Yesterday, I received an e-mail informing me that, the day after I retire, I am allowed to have an old people's bus pass, because the age of eligibility has been reduced from 65 to 60. I now come into that category. The next thing that I have to look forward to is my pension, and then the telegram from the Queen—or perhaps it will be the King by that time. I do not think that I will last that long anyway. Those are the rites of passage.
We have stereotypes of old age. Bob Hope was asked what it felt like to be 81 and he said that he did not feel anything much until about noon, and then it was time to go for a sleep. When George Burns was in his 80s, he said that he had reached the stage when putting his cigar into its holder was a bit of a thrill.
The image of older people has changed. We are surrounded by examples of positive aging, which is the phrase that is used in one of our briefing papers. I remember attending a party for an old lady who was 90. One of her two equally elderly relatives said that the only thing that was wrong with Tina was that she was man mad. The other day, I sat at a dinner with a local dignitary who is about 85 and who gave up his 500cc Norton only a couple of years ago. My mother was 97 yesterday and played competitive bridge until about three years ago. I am holding up one of her most treasured possessions—a T-shirt marking one of her three wins, after she was 80, in the wee stinker crossword, and that is a crossword and a half. In our constituencies, we are all surrounded by silver surfers and line dancing.
It is fair to say that a good start has been made, as the minister said. That was acknowledged at the beginning of the two most recent pieces of correspondence that I received from Help the Aged and Age Concern, which both acknowledge that the Scottish Parliament has made a great and positive contribution in improving older people's lives. Those lobbyists refer to the central heating initiative, the warm deal, the concessionary fares scheme and the introduction of free care for the elderly. As MSPs, we know that none of those schemes has been introduced without individual anomalies.
I must have a different Help the Aged briefing from the one that Ian Jenkins has, because the second paragraph of my briefing says:
"Current government pension policy means that in the long-term the situation will get worse rather than better."
I wonder where all the positivity comes from.
No, the member did not say that.
The substantial policies that I described affect the fabric of the way in which many people live their lives.
It is important to improve information for the elderly. One of the briefing documents says that, in implementing the heating policy, the Eaga Partnership and others provided benefits advice. People who received that advice benefited hugely from understanding better their welfare benefits. Increased awareness of, and information about, benefits for older people is important.
Help the Aged's document says that the initiatives are a recognition of the value of older people, on which we must build. In our self-interest, it is important for politicians to value older people, because we must remember that more than 1 million voters are over 60 years old and that they form a quarter of the voters on the electoral roll. That group is much more likely to vote than other sectors of the population are, so we had better listen to it. We are supposed to be a listening Parliament and we have projects such as better government for older people and the Elder Voice in the Borders, which involves elder champions. We must listen to older people, otherwise we—or rather, other members—will be in electoral trouble.
That sector of the population has enormous clout in our country's economic life because of its spending power and the talent that it brings to the marketplace, the volunteering sector and other strands of economic life. In those wider terms, we must recognise older people's value to society as a whole. As members have said before, the fabric of our society depends on the voluntary sector in its professional sense and for its volunteers. In communities throughout the country, older people volunteer and are the mainstay of many clubs and
I suspect that it is true of all political parties that many activists in our constituencies are close to, or over, retirement age. I remember an instance from the time that David Steel was last elected, when an old chap of about 92, who was a good party member, came to help at the election and ended up driving the old people to the poll. I promise members that that is a true story.
Today, we are debating the opportunity gap for older people. I agree with the lobbying organisations that the health and social services provisions for older people are high on the political agenda. I do not want to turn the debate into one about the health service, but I want to address one aspect that seems to be hugely important in a debate about opportunity gaps.
It is vital that audiology services should be at the top of our list of priorities. As members know from their postbags, there is a massive wish to expand the provision of high-quality hearing aids, which to most people means digital hearing aids. We cannot have a serious debate about closing the opportunity gap for older people if we allow older people to live their lives deprived of a sense that allows them to function fully. We have the means to improve their lives immeasurably and we need to make arrangements for those means to be provided.
One of the interesting statistics that I have read highlights the proportion of older people who are carers. Kenny Gibson mentioned that. We must turn our attention to providing proper respite facilities for the individuals whom they care for, to allow the older carers some respite from their undoubted burdens. Frank McAveety knows that I am interested in this subject. In saying that to him, I also congratulate him on having come to a solution with the care home people.
When we talk about respite facilities, I put in a plea for day care centres. I am connected to the Broomhill day centre in Penicuik. I hope that ministers will give serious consideration to making day care centres a statutory provision so that local authorities have to support those centres. To do so would address the voluntary nature of those vital centres and bring them from the edges of provision into the centre. Providing in any other way the facilities that are offered by day care centres would cost social services or the health service much more.
Our attention should be focused on the areas of education and lifelong learning. We must make it easier for people who have taken early retirement from a strenuous job, or who have been made
We are aware of current and forthcoming skills shortages across the country. We must ensure that training programmes are made available that will allow older people to qualify for the jobs that become available. We are short of tradespeople of all sorts and we are short of carers. There are desk jobs, for which people simply require training, and jobs in areas in which posts have traditionally gone to young people, such as catering and tourism.
There is no logical reason why things should be set in aspic. Colleges and training boards must make their programmes flexible, so that people can enter them without having to undertake five-year courses or do big blocks of stuff, but can get back into the workplace and feel useful and not excluded.
I hope that there will come a point in the McCrone agreement when the stepping down arrangements that are part of the agreement, but which have not yet been fully facilitated, come into operation. Those arrangements would allow teachers to ease out of full-time posts without damaging their pension rights. They could act as a model for other employment areas.
Lifelong learning opportunities should be provided for older people on a personal level. Older people come together for social reasons in clubs that are established to improve physical well-being and provide recreational activities such as bridge and painting. Older people are becoming interested in computing and working on the web. Such opportunities are increasingly becoming available in libraries and village halls, as well as in the homes of older people.
Activities that encourage fitness and broaden the mind have knock-on benefits for individuals and for society through the sense of well-being that they create. We save on other services as a result of people being fitter and happier in their ordinary lives.
I was going to mention pensions—
There is a sense that pensions and benefits are a Westminster matter, but Scottish ministers must be interested in them and make their views known. There is a loss of faith in the whole pensions apparatus that will affect many
I want to conclude philosophically. I was an English teacher and am inclined to turn to poetry, much of which deals with older people. T S Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" features an individual who feels that he has not made much of his life. He has measured out his life with coffee spoons and recognises that he is never likely to break with convention. He says:
"I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
Jenny Joseph is intent on throwing over the traces:
"When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves".
Dylan Thomas is even stronger:
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
However, my favourite poem in this context and for this occasion is the long poem "Ulysses" by Tennyson. The old king is tired of a dull life and determined that he must go for one last adventure. He says that he feels that he must go. He cannot stay making laws for people—he mentions doling out
"Unequal laws unto a savage race".
"I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees" and adds:
"all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world ...
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!"
"And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought ...
my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die."
He says that he will go out
"Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
As I prepare myself to sail into the sunset, I thank all my colleagues and friends from all parties and make it clear that I will be forever grateful to my constituents in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale for giving me the opportunity to serve in this historic Parliament.
Yesterday, when I said to my comrade, ally, colleague, and indeed sister, Johann Lamont, that I was going to speak in the debate, she immediately said that she hoped that I would declare an interest, which I do declare, as I am an older person. As it is the final plenary session, I will not say what the minister said to me this morning when I said that I was going to speak.
Colin Campbell and John Young have reminded me many times that, as Winnie Ewing is not returning after the election but I am, I will be the mother of the house. I will be pleased to be the mother of the house and follow Winnie Ewing. Perhaps I have experience to speak on the subject.
I am proud of the Scottish Executive's efforts to make the lives of older people more tolerable and secure. Free central heating, free personal care, free local bus travel—which is soon to be increased to free bus travel around Scotland—much-improved pensions and free television licences for those who are over 75 have been introduced.
However, I want to turn to older people who are activists in our communities in elderly forums. There are two such forums in my constituency—one in Erskine and one in Inverclyde, which I share with Duncan McNeil. Such people play a key role in campaigns for better pensions and safer communities and generally making life much more tolerable, although sometimes I wonder whether they make life more tolerable for politicians—each time that I see them, they do not miss and hit the wall, as they say. In the best sense, they are the trade union movement for older people; more than that, they engage actively with councillors, MSPs and MPs. We should listen attentively to those wise and sometimes sharp-tongued representatives of older people.
One of the finest of those representatives whom I have met was Jack Jones, who fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war and went on to become the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. I assure members that no minister dared to pull the wool over the sharp eyes of that senior citizen.
How do we define older people today? The minister mentioned the new deal 50 plus, which recognises that there are 50 year olds who are not working. For me—at the old age that I am—50 is not old; it is still young. There is a lot more to do.
It is right and proper that we care for older citizens, but what about those who are thrown on to the scrap heap in their 50s? No doubt members would be unhappy—they would be appalled—if their constituency parties told them, "You are too
Much more needs to be done. It is absurd and hypocritical for people to argue for longer working lives, as they are doing in another place, when so many in their early 50s see only a life on social security payments and no prospect of change.
By all means support, respond and react to the genuine and legitimate concerns of elderly forums, Age Concern Scotland and other voluntary organisations, but at the same time let us do all that we can to ensure that people lead full working lives with good terms and conditions of employment.
The debate, as we all know, coincides with the day that some of us head off into retirement and will ourselves soon be labelled as older people.
Anyone who was at Sir David Steel's dinner for retiring members last night would have to concede that we wrinklies still know how to party. By the sound of Ian Jenkins's speech, I do not think that he has been home yet.
I shall move swiftly on.
Four days after the election, I will be the proud possessor of, in one hand, my state pension book and, in the other, my Strathclyde bus pass. The world will, of course, become my oyster.
I do not expect to feel or look any different when I become 60 on 5 May, but I suspect that I will be treated differently. All the statistics indicate that I will experience age discrimination. It is important that this Parliament addresses the fact that age discrimination exists throughout our society.
Carers have been mentioned. Those people save the state £3.4 billion a year through their dedicated commitment, but what does the state do when they reach retirement age? It cancels their entitlement to invalid care allowance—no matter
I will take a quick look at age discrimination in the health service. In hospitals around Scotland, older people are shunted from ward to ward and from bed to bed. That is done to make room for more acute patients. In 1999, there were about 1,800 delayed discharges. Today, at the end of the parliamentary session, there are more than 2,500. That is an increase of almost 40 per cent. The situation was bad in 1999, but it is even worse in 2003. To add insult to injury, those elderly people are commonly described as bedblockers, as if they deliberately languish in inappropriate acute wards in hospitals. We can and must do better.
Among the most disturbing reports on care of the elderly are those that reveal that up to 20 per cent of pensioners in hospitals are malnourished. The reason for that is simple—there are not enough nursing and auxiliary staff to assist frail elderly people to eat their meals. My mother was in such a situation, but, luckily, after a few days, another patient alerted me to the fact that my mum's meals were being removed untouched. That is no way in which to treat the elderly population. Those people have worked hard all their lives, they have put their bit into the public kitty and they have every right to be cared for with dignity and respect when their working lives are over.
The Parliament has the power and the will to improve the quality of life for the growing number of older people. We have shown that through what I consider to be the greatest achievement of the first four years of the Parliament—the introduction of free personal care for the elderly. We can all be justifiably proud of that achievement.
This is my last speech in the Parliament. I feel honoured and privileged to have served in the first Scottish Parliament in almost 300 years, but now is my time to say goodbye. I have made many friends from all parties and I will truly miss all members—I will even miss Duncan McNeil's cheery wee face.
I give my good wishes to the members who are leaving, but I hope that this is not my last speech in the Parliament.
The debate is an important one. My constituency of Glasgow Anniesland has the second highest proportion of retired citizens in Scotland and I have no hesitation in supporting the motion because I know that people in my constituency have benefited from the policies of the Labour-led Executive. Those policies recognise people's needs in areas that are fundamental to a civilised quality of life, which is every citizen's right.
From the bare statistics, it can be seen that the Executive, working in partnership with our colleagues in Westminster, has begun to make improvements to the life of retired citizens. The higher state pension, the winter fuel allowance and, from next autumn, the new pension credit will result in an average gain of £1,150 a year for such citizens. Those reforms are not the be-all and end-all; they are only the start of the process of making an impact on pensioner poverty. In absolute terms, pensioner poverty has fallen by 69 per cent and, in relative terms, it has fallen by 31 per cent, but the present situation is still an indictment of our society and illustrates the work that remains to be done to repair the 18 years of Tory destructiveness.
I contend that the Executive has made real achievements, which are a good beginning. I will focus on a number of initiatives that the Labour-led Executive has set in train and which I know, from talking to my constituents, have made a real difference. One such initiative was the decision to introduce free local off-peak bus travel for pensioners and disabled people from October last year. In partnership with councils all over Scotland, that policy has benefited more than a million of our fellow citizens. In my view, the £45 million that has been invested in that scheme is money well spent. It is a practical example of socialism in action.
I am delighted that my party has pledged to extend that scheme so that it encompasses the whole of Scotland. I hope that the people of Scotland allow us to develop the policy in the Parliament's second session. That is a logical development, and will prevent the teething problems that the present scheme has encountered, which many colleagues and I have raised in this chamber. Those teething problems were caused mainly by an overly bureaucratic and inflexible application of the guidelines relating to the scheme's boundaries.
The second area that I want to touch on is the work in progress on the series of measures that
We are always advised not to quote Aneurin Bevan, but I am going to go against that advice, because he put it much better than I could, to the nth degree. In his book "In Place of Fear" he said:
"There is no test for progress other than its impact on the individual. If ... policies ... do not have for their object the enlargement and cultivation of the individual life, they do not deserve to be called civilised."
That was true in 1952 and it still applies today.
Free eye tests and TV licences, free personal and nursing care, better housing and an improving national health service, with an extra £3.2 billion to be invested over the next five years, are all worthwhile reforms that impact beneficially on individuals.
Let me put it this way: all those things do not represent the revolution that some of us may hope for, but they add up to a beginning, which will create a revolution in the quality of life of so many of our fellow citizens. As a socialist, one deals with the situation as it is, with the material conditions as they are, and not with what one might wish they could be in the most perfect possible situation. That is my contention and what I, as a reformist socialist, believe in.
I commend the Labour-led Executive's motion, which mirrors its approach over the past four years. That approach is palpable evidence of a good beginning and is worthy of continued support.
This is an oddly sad day, when we say goodbye to Kay Ullrich, John Young, Dorothy-Grace Elder, Ian Jenkins and, of course, that grand matriarch of Scottish politics, Dr Winnie Ewing. When I was in Shetland at the weekend, people said, as they do wherever I go in the Highlands, "How's Winnie doing? She used to come up here so often." One thing about proportional representation in European elections is that everyone knew that Winnie was the member of the European Parliament. Her reputation will continue.
We have heard so much about social inclusion in recent years, particularly in relation to older people. Many of the soundbites sound very good. Free personal care is free if one can get it. It is free if one can get out of hospital, as Kay Ulrich said. It is also free if one can wait long enough for it. Free personal care is free once someone has had a long wait for an assessment—up to 12 months, but sometimes longer. It is free once the care plan is drawn up, but the care plan can take several months. The care plan should not be a wish list; it should be the basis for the care and support that someone receives.
What is free, however, is the watered-down version of the care plan that gives someone the free personal care that the councils can afford and not the free personal care that is outlined in the care plan. I do not think that there is an MSP in the chamber who has not had someone visit their surgeries to say, "Here is my care plan and this is what I get." It must be the responsibility of Parliament to ensure that the legislation to which we sign up is in good faith. I sat through all the meetings of the Health and Community Care Committee, many of which Kay Ulrich contributed to and, in good faith, we thought that free personal care would be quite different from the free personal care for which people have to fight today.
Week by week in the Highlands, families are fighting for care for the elderly. A lady came to me last week and told me that she was forced to take her mother out of hospital and care for her at home. I saw her mother walking along the road and it was a tragic sight. That was reality, unlike the soundbites that we often hear from the Executive.
I have in my hand a pack from Aberdeen City Council. It is addressed to my colleague David Davidson and dated the end of October last year, which was four months after the implementation of free personal care. It says:
"The Eligibility Criteria for Community Care Services Review Group have been considering the revisal of the eligibility criteria and have made comparisons of the eligibility criteria with other local authorities, particularly those of Fife Council".
When the Parliament passed free personal care, we all assumed that there would be consistent standards throughout Scotland, but instead we have a pick and mix. Highland Council has already tried to change the eligibility criteria for free personal care to say that people in the Highlands should be more ill before they receive it. The same situation exists throughout Scotland. Thankfully, the motion lodged by the social work convener at Highland Council was voted down. However, we must ensure that when we pass legislation in the Parliament, every council in Scotland has the same commitment to it.
Whoever sits on the successor Health and Community Care Committee after 1 May must make a commitment to monitor the implementation of free personal care, but I ask the minister, too, to make that commitment. I do not doubt his good will, but I believe that he has a serious monitoring role to ensure that pensioners throughout Scotland get consistent access to free personal care.
Does the member accept that the legislation is clear and that the guidelines provided indicate that people should be assessed for free personal care and then allocated such care according to the services of local authorities? Does she also accept that there is no need for local authorities to introduce waiting lists because the resources and the legislation exist, as is right and proper?
Yes. In fact I have found the minister supportive when I took information to him and highlighted my concerns. We all have a responsibility to do that where local authorities are writing their own guidelines that are quite different from the legislation we pass in Parliament.
The Aberdeen City Council pack to which I referred mentions high priority, medium priority and low priority. The council also admits:
"You may be placed onto a waiting list for the provision of some services."
It also says:
"we are unable to guarantee a particular type or level of service will always be available."
At least Aberdeen City Council is honest. I am happy to pass on the pack from the council because its implementation is not the same as the guidelines that were set by the Parliament. However, I must ask whether the council has heard of free personal care. There is no mention in the document of the free personal care provisions that were passed by the Parliament. I am pleased to hear the minister's commitments in that regard.
Free personal care should be applied consistently throughout Scotland. There should not be postcode provision. It should not be
Lewis Macdonald knows a lot about free bus travel, but I will tell him about the situation in the Highlands. Someone who lives in Nairn can travel to Inverness, Fort William or Wick for free, but cannot cross the boundary into Grampian to go to Forres or Elgin. Many people in Nairn have a greater commitment to those two towns than they do to what they might term the wild west of the Highlands. In response to a parliamentary question on this matter that was asked by David Davidson, Lewis Macdonald said:
"The decision on whether to offer this benefit, however, is for the local transport authority to make in relation to each particular scheme."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 18 February 2003; p 3010.]
I understand that, but the minister cannot stand in this chamber and say that there will be free travel for the elderly and leave it to local operators to decide what is free and what is not free.
No chance. I realise that Sylvia Jackson is desperate for votes, but she should not come chapping on my door.
Although, as Ian Jenkins said, pensions are a Westminster issue, I will mention the fact that Help the Aged's briefing, in a section entitled "Creating Tomorrow's Pensioner Poverty Today", criticises the stakeholder pensions. It also says that 72 per cent of final salary schemes have stopped accepting new members, that there is a £27 million black hole in pension provision and that the state pension is diminishing in value. According to Help the Aged, things are not getting better for pensioners; they are getting worse.
On behalf of the young at heart, regardless of age, I would like to discuss employment and volunteering.
I should probably declare an interest in that, if I make a persuasive speech about the need to employ older people and am successful in the election, Jim Wallace might give me a job.
None of us thinks that anyone should have to work after the normal retirement age if they do not want to. However, we should be far more flexible in helping people to continue to work longer if they want to and are up to it. Winston Churchill was a pensioner when he led Britain to salvation in the 1940s. [Applause.] The Conservative members who just applauded might not like my next example as much, but Gladstone was in his 80s when he took on the establishment to try to secure Irish home rule. He used to speak for one, two or three hours on the subject in Parliament. I assure members that I will stick to four minutes, however.
Closer to home, I mention our two oldest members, Winnie Ewing and John Young. They have long and distinguished records of public service in Scotland, which have continued right up to the present time. Age is no impediment. We should do more to change people's attitudes.
If we are of a pensionable age and wish to continue, there are three tests. First, are we physically up to what we want to do? Secondly, do we continue to enjoy it? Certainly, I do, as do many other members; I go home happily if I have contributed a little to some local issue and helped constituents. If I have nudged the parliamentary process to support some cause I am interested in—even if I have just annoyed a Government department—that has been a good day. Thirdly, we need honest advice from our nearest and dearest as to whether we have lost the plot.
In other words, health, enjoyment and still being mentally up to it are the important factors. The Executive could lead by example; it could have much more liberal employment policies to allow people to continue working. In my brief time as an MP, I tried to help people who were losing their jobs at the Scottish Office, allegedly because of their age, although they were very keen to continue. We should also encourage Scottish employers to be liberal and flexible as regards employing older people.
The other aspect is volunteering. Again, we do not wish to compel people to volunteer; it is their choice. However, many people feel inhibited from volunteering, and we could do far more to inform them. For example, there could be a simple rule that all charities and voluntary organisations had to have a two-page summary of their activity, which would be part of the monitoring process, but would also be available on the web and in paper format in local libraries. People could then find out about voluntary organisations that they could work for. We could also give more training to help people. The fiercest and most determined organiser of voluntary activity I know is over retirement age, and two of the most valuable treasurers I have known have also been of that age. Treasurers are probably more valuable to an
Ian Jenkins finished his excellent speech with my favourite piece of poetry about Ulysses going on one more voyage. As a politician hoping to get into one more Parliament, he has expressed what I feel. I am happy to leave it at that.
I suppose I must declare an interest. When I was coming up the road, David Davidson told me that he supposed that I would be speaking today. I asked, "Why is that?" and he replied, "On grounds of antiquity." No one has tried to define older people. It is funny—the young people in the gallery probably think that older people are 30. When someone is 30, they think that old is 45, and when they are my age, they might think 80. When I am 80—as I fully intend to be, God willing and weather permitting—I shall think that 95 is old.
Age is partly a state of mind, as other members have commented; I must admit that it is also a state of deteriorating body. That said, there are many older people who are far fitter, mentally and physically, than young people. Although there is a common condition among older people known as a senior moment—alternatively, a CRAFT moment, which I will explain later but cannot possibly say here—such fleeting seconds of forgetfulness are not the exclusive province of older people. I suppose that the only definition has to be chronological. I have been in denial on this for years, but my imminent departure has forced me to face up to it.
What is the opportunity gap? People are prevented from working beyond a certain age, and are not selected for jobs because they are too old. We should follow the example of the United States, where people work as long as they want to and as long as they are fit and well for the job. That is what Donald Gorrie said, and I agree. Older people who lose their jobs in their 50s or early 60s are not getting retrained quickly enough. For those who do not want to leave, or who are not at the end of their salary career, that is a demoralising experience.
I have looked at Age Concern Scotland's manifesto for the forthcoming election. It highlights a number of points that Age Concern feels to be worthy of consideration. Those include defects in service delivery in the national health service, in care services, in housing, in support from voluntary services, in consultation and in transport.
I will focus, however, on the need to ensure that enterprise and lifelong learning policies are fully inclusive of older people's needs. That means that vocational retraining must be readily accessible everywhere for everyone, where they need it. Non-vocational studies and courses must be available for people who no longer wish to continue to work. The two benefits of that are, first, that it enriches those people's lives—people's lives should be as rich as they can be for as long as possible.
I could not possibly disagree with Helen Eadie in this instance. That is just great and really good to know.
The second benefit of people taking non-vocational courses after they leave work is that they can share their life's experience with the other people on the course, and with the staff. Not only does that educate other people, it is good for their own self-esteem.
To give the people in this nation the best possible lives, we need to control all the levers of power. To discuss this in a devolved Parliament that is devoid of power over income tax, social security, pensions and the economy is a bit like whistling in the wind. To close the opportunity gap for older people—and indeed for all our people—Scotland needs to release the great wealth of Scotland for all the people of Scotland. That can be done only by delivering independence. That is why I joined the Scottish National Party—that is why we all joined our party—and that is why our party will be here until after independence day.
And now for my valedictory paragraph. Unlike Ian Jenkins, who used to be an English teacher, I am an historian to trade, and there will be no poetry in this. It has been a responsibility, an honour and a privilege to serve in the first democratically elected Scottish Parliament. Its cross-party committee system, with its pre-legislative scrutiny, proves that a one-chamber assembly can work. The consensus that is arrived at in the committees and often, on the really good days, in the chamber, represents the very best of Scottish politics. More than that, although we disagree radically on a number of things—not least independence, over which we will argue until independence day—we conduct our political lives tolerantly and with mutual respect, so much so that foreign parliamentarians have been beating a path to the Parliament since we opened, to see how we do it so well. Sometimes, we do not get enough credit in this country for what we have achieved. The Parliament is a bit like a prophet without honour in his own country. Somebody
I am sorry that Mrs Curran is not in the chamber at the moment to get something back—we heard a good lecture from her earlier. I have no declaration to make for the debate, unlike some of my colleagues. If we ever wish to look for value for money from the older generation, it was John Young in the karaoke bar last night.
I am amazed at the Executive's hypocrisy in securing this debate at the last possible moment of the session. It could not have got the debate in any later if it had tried. That is how much the Executive prioritises the needs of our older generation, and that is the signal that it is sending out. The Executive should be ashamed that it has taken so long to bring this subject to the chamber.
Under the Labour Government, particularly under Gordon Brown, there has been an increase in stealth taxes that cannot be avoided. Those taxes hit pensioners and those who are not on benefit particularly badly. This is the new poverty trap, and it puts people just above the benefit level. Savings have been attacked. The savings index is down, which does not bode well for the future, so God knows how we will pay for taxes, pensions and so on in future.
Gordon Brown has singled out the one area in which people can be self-reliant: the tax on the pensions system. People save up and want to be proud and have their independence and dignity, as Keith Harding rightly said. The Labour Government has destroyed that in the interest of getting money into the pot, regardless of where it comes from. That is a scandal that the next—Conservative—Government will have to address. We have little doubt that that will not be too far in the offing, despite Lewis Macdonald's smirking. I say to him that merely giving people bus passes is no substitute for giving them choice and dignity in their old age.
The new poverty zone has taken a lot from our older generation. We are all knocking on doors at the moment, and we all speak to older people. What do they talk to us about? They talk about the cost of government, their lack of purchasing power with the money that they have left, how they have to eke out a living, and how their pensions have not increased in line with inflation. Yet, council after council has inflicted massive council tax rises in the past six years. There is not a council in Scotland that has done anything to reduce council
Who do those increases hit worst of all? They hit those who do not have an opportunity to earn a living and whose pensions are eroded. It is a fact of life that the stock market goes up and down. However, the value of those annuities that were meant to mature in the past two years has probably gone down by 40 to 45 per cent. People's hopes, aspirations and savings have been destroyed, and the Labour Government does not recognise that.
It is amazing—Mrs Curran has actually come in to the chamber. Once again, she is not giving her whole-hearted attention to a serious debate.
It is perfectly fair. Mrs Curran brought this debate, late, to the Parliament and she should sit here and listen, particularly since we had lectures from her this morning.
Free personal care is a joke. The document that I gave to Mary Scanlon is proof positive that the councils of Scotland do not have the Scottish Executive's support in delivering free personal care. About eight councils have issued public policy statements in which they state very clearly that there is no national scheme. Instead, there is postcode availability of free personal care, which is a disgrace. The amount of money that the Parliament has received to spend has gone up and up, but what do we see for it? As far as the older generation is concerned, we do not see a great deal.
I am pleased that the Scottish Executive has rejected the Office of Fair Trading report on pharmacy services. I give the Executive credit for that and am glad that I was able to help Frank McAveety through some of the technical issues involved. In this case, at least, the Executive has managed to get the answer right. I am pleased that people in rural and suburban communities will now be able to access pharmaceutical care. I declare that I no longer have any interest in community pharmacy.
The Executive has been late to the table on this subject: it could not have scheduled this debate any later. That is a clear signal to the pensioners of Scotland that they are not in the front line of the Scottish Executive's concerns.
Like other speakers, I pay my respects to the retiring members and wish them the very best. I look forward to my retirement—hopefully, in 29 years' time, after a career serving as the MSP for
Credit should be given to the Executive where it is due. Like other members, I am sometimes critical of the Executive, but I commend it for its response to the pharmacy report. It has listened to the wide range of members' views. The pharmacy issues are very important to the older people in our communities as pharmacies provide a valuable service and the Executive has taken that into consideration.
I see this debate as an opportunity to promote many of the services that we have delivered. I also see it as an opportunity to consider how we improve older people's experiences in our communities. I put on record my appreciation of the army of home helps and care workers and other key staff who provide a valuable service in supporting the older people in our communities. I also give recognition to the alive and kicking project in my constituency, which provides a valuable service to the elderly.
The experience of many of my elderly constituents appears to be patchy, particularly when they have inquiries about council tax, utilities, housing benefit or other issues to which members have referred. Older people face what is almost a web of secrecy about how their inquiries are dealt with. I ask the Minister for Social Justice—I make a constructive point here—whether she will consider a one-stop-shop approach to support elderly people with the inquiries with which they encounter difficulties. As a Glasgow MSP, the minister will be aware of some of the council tax inquiries that our elderly constituents have and the difficulties that they face with how such inquiries are managed. We have many examples of one-stop-shop approaches in our communities and such an approach to support the elderly with their inquiries would be a way forward.
I referred to the alive and kicking project. The ethos of that project is that one is never too old. The project has set up an informal dating agency—if any retired members are interested—and many of the people involved have married later in life, such as Rose and Benny Walker, the founder members of the project. Their ethos is that one is never too old for many of the activities in which they are involved. That is the kind of ethos that we should develop in the Parliament. We should not allow our elderly people to be confined to day rooms and day facilities. They should be involved in the kinds of activities that the project has developed over the past 20 years. I put on record my appreciation, as the local MSP, for the hard work that has been done. I plead with the Executive to consider investing in and developing such services.
The main thing is to ensure that we build on that
Like many other members, I take the opportunity to wish those who are retiring today all the best for the future. I particularly say a word or two about my colleague Winnie Ewing, because she has the unique record of having served in three Parliaments. She opened this Parliament—the first democratically elected Scottish Parliament—and she has been not only a great parliamentarian and patriot, but has become an icon for the people of Scotland. I congratulate her and wish her all the best.
I could go round the chamber singling out many other people, but I want to mention only one other person. We should put on record our gratitude for the huge contribution that Henry McLeish made to the introduction of free personal care for the elderly. We wish Henry all the best in the future.
As one of the younger speakers in the debate—
For members who were not here, I mentioned in yesterday's debate on the economy that I read the Toothill report way back in 1962, while I was in my pram. I received a query from the official report, which asked me to clarify what I was flicking through in my pram. I hope that the official report keeps a copy of that note for future reference.
I want to discuss the pensions crisis that we face in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Before I do that, I want to underline the points that have been made about the threat to our pharmacies. For many older people, the pharmacy is the focal point. It is not only where they collect prescriptions; in many cases, it is where they meet their friends. They often rely on the local chemist for advice, which might be on a variety of local issues, as well as on their health. We must unite in fighting any threat to our local pharmacies.
As far as older people—and many others—are concerned, the other great institution is the local post office. It is regrettable that the threat to urban and, in the longer term, to rural post offices is still with us. That is of major concern to older people.
I turn to the key issue of pensions. Many of the aspirations that Margaret Curran outlined in her speech are aspirations that we all share, not just for those who are retired at the moment, but for those who will retire in the years to come. A key prerequisite—the fundamental principle that must be fulfilled before anyone can genuinely enjoy their retirement—is the guarantee that they will get a decent weekly income on which to enjoy it.
Any pensioner who lives on, or near, the poverty line and who relies on a pittance of a pension—the minimum income guarantee is more minimum than income—cannot enjoy their retirement, mix with their friends, go for a pint or do the things that people want to do when they have the time to do them. One of the most disgraceful measures that the Thatcher Government introduced was the breaking of the link between the annual increase in the pension and the increase in earnings rather than prices. If that link had been maintained, many pensioners would be up to £30 a week better off than they are.
Does the member accept that, at the time at which that link was broken, the historical perspective indicated that pensioners had been at a massive disadvantage because that change had not been made earlier?
The bottom line is that the breaking of the link between the pension and earnings has cost pensioners about £1,500—at today's prices—every year. The same is true of the Christmas bonus, which, to be fair, the Tories introduced. Initially, it was worth £10, but now it is worth only £1.25—about 10 per cent of its original value.
I have not had time to develop all the other aspects of the pensions crisis. My basic point is that paying lip service to the pensioners is fine, but if it ain't matched with resources, that is all it is—lip service. We must guarantee that every pensioner has a decent income, so that they can enjoy their retirement.
A couple of weeks ago, my six-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter asked me, "Have you ever met Queen Victoria?" I sort of looked at her and asked, "Do you not mean the Queen?" She said, "No,
One important thing that has not been mentioned in the debate so far is the lack of communication between the elderly and the young. For a number of reasons, there was far more communication between the old and the young 30 or 40 years ago, when large numbers of people were employed in the same firm and people came through apprenticeships. Apprentices would start quite young and would be in contact with people who were in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and even beyond.
I started as an office boy at 16 years of age. In those days, it was not possible to be promoted beyond an office boy until it was seen whether the call came for national service at the age of 18. I recall that our office had not only the likes of myself who was 16, but two men who were over 70 years of age. One of them was the head clerk, who had started as an office boy in the same firm when Queen Victoria was in the last few years of her reign. There was that mix between the young, the middle-aged and the old.
Under national service, a large chunk of the male population saw that mix. The 18 and 19-year-olds had to meet corporals and sergeants who would be in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Because all those things have largely disappeared, a type of division has occurred.
We set down certain age markers, such as 60 and 65, but we should bear it in mind that at the beginning of the 20th century only about 60 people in this country were reckoned to have reached 100 years of age, whereas today almost 6,000 people are reckoned to come within that category. Again, world heavyweight boxing champions such as Jack Dempsey tended to retire at 31 years of age. In the past few years, people such as Riddick Bowe have fought for the same title at 45 years of age. Colonel Glenn, who was latterly a senator, went back into space at 77 years of age. We perhaps require new markers for age.
I think that it would be useful if a future Scottish Parliament reserved eight seats. Four would be for people over 65 years of age who would be appointed for one year on a rotating system. The other four seats would go to people under 21 years of age, again for one year only on a rotating system. That would be a useful exercise, which could be done outwith the mainstream elections.
We have heard all sorts of contributions today and I thank Donald Gorrie for his kind remarks. I think that the next Parliament should establish a poet laureate and Ian Jenkins would be the obvious man for that job. It might be a new departure to have such a thing in a Scottish Parliament.
Finally, a number of years ago in the United States, the Republican and Democrat parties recognised the value of what they called grey power as a huge voting block. There is the possibility that grey power in this country will become more organised as a voting block that any politician ignores at their peril. If a mass of grey-power people come together, they will be able to decide the outcome of not only Scottish Parliament elections, but Westminster elections.
On that happy note, it remains only for me to thank everybody for their kind wishes for the future. I have no intention of simply putting my slippers on, or of watching the afternoon television and all that sort of nonsense. I hope to participate in politics in another direction. I will perhaps consider writing up my experiences of the first four years of the Scottish Parliament.
I was one of the few Conservatives who wanted a Scottish Parliament when we had the declaration of Perth in the 1970s. One man who I am sad to see did not make it here is Brian Meek, the Edinburgh town councillor and journalist. Brian is a fund of knowledge and has been a staunch supporter of the Scottish Parliament, but he is still languishing down the road at Edinburgh City Chambers. Perhaps he will make it here yet.
I thank members very much. I have made good friends across the political spectrum. However, members have not seen the last of me. I will pay the occasional visit to Edinburgh and I may even lead grey-power marches down to Holyrood if members do not behave themselves. Be warned. [Applause.]
Many visions have floated across our radar today. My favourite, and the point at which I really got the giggles, was when Alex Neil referred to reading various documents while in his pram. My vision was of Alex Neil sitting in his pram, dribbling mush down his bib and thinking, "I have got to like mush. When I grow up, I think I will go into politics." A bonnie fechter is Alex Neil.
I am glad that Margaret Curran and Frank McAveety are the two ministers in charge today. The three of us have been sandwiched together in the east end for the past four years and, putting all party politics aside, both of them have co-operated with good heart and good grace on constituency issues, and have been friendly and kind at all times. Yes, even Frank McAveety—I had to put that on the record.
I am one of those leaving the Parliament, but I am certainly not retiring, even if it is my silver wedding anniversary this year. I will retire when someone nails down my box—be there.
Campaigns will go on, especially the chronic pain campaign, which is one that affects older people. I know that Mary Scanlon and others who have been loyal to that campaign will continue it, as will the interest of members across all parties.
I will get to the nitty-gritty of age. I am old enough to remember when the Registrar General for Scotland produced a report entitled "The population of Scotland broken down by age and sex". Obviously we could take our pick which we wanted to be broken down by, fellow parliamentarians.
I am not sure what we mean when we talk in this debate about "older people" or "old people". By the standards of the Bundestag in Germany, everyone in the Scottish Parliament is older or old, even our youngest member who is still in his 20s. Recently, a girl of 19—a member of the Green party—was elected to the Bundestag.
Although talent occurs at any age, it is a formidable combination when talent is united with experience. I am terribly sorry to see some members leaving today, especially the unique Winnie Ewing. We are losing our mother, and that is awful for the Parliament.
The minister briefly referred to unemployment among older people. A survey by Silicon Research Services stated that agist discrimination begins at 35 nowadays. That is what was found in a survey of several thousand people.
Those of us who have marched together have tackled all forms of discrimination over the years. I know many faces from those past days. We marched against racism and sexism, but we have yet to tackle the last big, horrible ism and that is ageism.
The Eden Brown employee survey of October 2001 showed that employees found discrimination at work on the basis of age was much more common than discrimination on grounds of gender or race. We can see clearly why that is—there is legislation on race and gender discrimination.
In 1996, Mr Blair promised in writing to the campaign against age discrimination in employment that he would legislate against age discrimination. Strangely enough, after the election, he did not and it has been worked on a voluntary basis, which most certainly has not worked with employers.
An NOP survey found that half of employers had work forces with fewer than 10 per cent of employees over age 50 and 10 per cent of employers had no employees aged over 50. That is a disgraceful waste of human life and I am sure that everyone in the chamber will agree on that and agree that we have to move against ageism in future, whether the subject is devolved or not.
I will leave the chamber with some final thoughts. What is the Executive's own employment policy? One Executive document states that it does not usually employ people who are over 60, while the next reassures everyone that the Executive is against all forms of discrimination, including age discrimination. As a result, I ask the minister to spell out in his summing-up whether the Executive truly sets a good example or whether it debars people who are over 60.
I think that it should be illegal for any employer to ask someone about their age. I adhere to the view of Joan Rivers, who calculated her age according to the Hollywood movie star school of creative mathematics and then said anything she damned well liked about it. She was quite right, too. In fact, I recommend everyone to count their age in dog years.
I thank all members who have been friendly, co-operative and civilised over the past four years.
I am sorry to intervene in the final minute. However, I want to put on record my recognition of Dorothy-Grace Elder's hard work both in the Parliament and in the east end of Glasgow. I had been debating whether to intervene on other members but, given my proximity to Dorothy-Grace and the work that we have done together in the east end of the city, I wanted to record on behalf of myself and Frank McAveety our recognition of her efforts.
Oh, go on.
The minister's comment was exceedingly kind. I know that she will work on and perhaps take on the Carntyne incinerator case. If I can help with anything, I certainly will. I have found out in politics that what counts are individuals, irrespective of party. Margaret Curran has been a staunch supporter of people when they have needed help.
I want to finish by thanking the people who really created this Parliament from scratch: the staff. We have been privileged. They have possibly had custody of the brain throughout; indeed, fronted by our marvellous security staff, they have done everything possible in every department for us. To all of them I say, goodbye and good luck. [Applause.]
I send my best wishes to all the retirees, in particular Dorothy-Grace Elder, whose passion and wit I will miss, and Dr Winnie Ewing, who was my political mentor for many years and remains
Listening to the debate, I have been wondering who these older people are. Colin Campbell was quite right: it all depends on one's position on the timeline of life. I think that I am pretty young, although I am sure that lots of people think that I am no spring chicken and wonder why I am still here. Well, I intend to be here for a very long time.
For the purposes of many organisations, older people are classed as those who are over 50—which takes in my sweet young man Alex Neil. More than 1 million people in Scotland are over 50—indeed, one can hear them casting their votes based on what we have or have not done for them. Age Concern Scotland's slogan is "Age counts". We should all watch the ballot boxes to find out how politicians have let down Scotland's elderly.
We are not monotypical; we are all different and difficult and have all the usual virtues and vices. We are not simply older people. For example, my father is 88 on 1 April. He e-mails me his message list, but even that does not guarantee that I will come back with the right type of cabbage. He is truly an individual.
As we grow older, we rely more on public transport. To quote a famous film, I do not think that we should rely on "the kindness of strangers". We need public transport and a reliable health service and have to know that, when all is done, there is proper nursing care. As far as transport is concerned, mobility is at the heart of keeping one's health, psychological well-being and friends. Free bus passes might be all right, but they work only in one's own area. Someone in Penicuik can go to Leadburn, which is a couple of miles up the road, but if they want to go to Peebles, they must pay £4.50.
I would have been delighted to announce that had my colleagues not made such an announcement some weeks ago. Having caught up with that fact, Christine Grahame will want to pay close attention to the matter. The
The minister got there—better late than never. At least the scheme has got there; some buses do not get there. There is no point in having a free bus pass if no buses operate. In Galashiels in the Borders, Meigle Street loses all its buses on 31 March. Many elderly people who live up the hills will have nothing after that and they will knock on Scottish Borders Council's door. The bus services for those who live in Ladywood in Penicuik stop at 7.30 pm. People are supposed to be in bed with their knitted bedsocks on and are not supposed to be out gallivanting, doing internetting business and meeting friends.
Many older people are frightened to go into hospital because they think that doing so will make their health worse. Their operations might be successful, but they might catch infections while in hospital. My colleague Kay Ullrich mentioned a situation that I saw when my mother was terminally ill in hospital two years ago. Food trays that are put in front of patients have cups with lids that older people cannot open and the trays are taken away before the food has been eaten. Not a nurse is in sight to help those people to eat their meals. Some kind of resolution has been reached to the nursing home crisis, but elderly people and their families have been put through trouble in thinking that elderly people would be decanted and shifted like bits of furniture.
Growing old is not always a happy prospect, but I intend to grow old disgracefully. I will take a line from a poem that Ian Jenkins quoted: I shall "learn to spit".
I also intend to hone my skill at drinking malt while gardening.
There is fun at 50—I know, I have been there; there is sex at 60—I hope so, I am going there; there is sin at 70, and I am looking forward to it; and at 80 and 90, there is upholstery. If members want to know the answer to that conundrum, they should read a previous speech of mine.
I am tempted to say, "Follow that." I will try not to.
It is appropriate that the last main political debate of the session is about what the Parliament has done to try to improve older people's quality of life. In her opening speech, Margaret Curran made wide-ranging comments about what the Executive has done. I will focus not on a range of issues, but
In considering how to improve the key flagship policies that are delivered throughout Scotland, I asked my intern, Beth Shatzel, to undertake questionnaire work and to talk to older people in my constituency. Week in, week out in the Parliament, we debate policies endlessly, but how do those policies feed through to people? How do they know that those policies are being implemented?
We examined the three key policies of free off-peak local bus travel, free care for older people and free central heating. Through Beth Shatzel's work, which I followed up by attending many meetings of older people, it is clear that those policies have massive support throughout my constituency. Many older people have benefited from those policies, but many are still unaware of them. In the Parliament, we talk about the policies as if they were implemented at the flick of a switch, happened yesterday and are straightforward. We must communicate to older people what we have done in the Parliament, engage them in those discussions and talk to them about how to improve those policies.
When I talk to people in my constituency, just about every older person whom I meet is delighted about free off-peak local travel on buses. People have used it from day one—they have been delighted to get out there. People are not only using the scheme, but are massively aware of it. We have been hugely successful in making people know about free off-peak local travel on buses.
There is less awareness of what free care for older people means in practice and, as I said, it is incumbent on MSPs to communicate what policies mean in practice. Many older people whom we talked to had had free central heating installed, but many of them were suspicious about it. I was struck by the fact that they did not believe that it was going to be free. We have debated the issue in the Parliament—we know that free central heating is provided free and that the scheme is real. However, a lot of the older people whom we talked to thought that there was a catch; they thought that the scheme was something like a time-share. They said that bits of it would be free, but that they would have to pay for the installation or that there would be a catch further down the line and that 10 years hence they would have to pay for it.
It is important that we do not simply talk about those headline policies but take on the job of communicating them personally. A lot of flak has
I defend to the last the right of our Executive to spend money on publicity. I want every one of my constituents to know that they deserve and will benefit from free central heating. I have visited several old people's houses and have seen the difference that free central heating has made to their quality of life. I was struck by the fact that those old people no longer have to live their lives in their sitting rooms; they can be comfortable in their bedrooms and bathrooms as well. Those are basic things that the Scottish Parliament has done to make a difference and we should defend them to the last.
Although we have made a big difference in this parliamentary session, I would be the first to say that there is a hell of a lot more that we want to do in the second session. I would love to be in the Parliament then to extend those policies and to take them further forward.
It is important that we do not see older people only as receivers of benefit or policies from the Scottish Parliament. Older people put a huge amount back into our constituencies and communities. As a local MSP, I am proud of the work that older people do in my constituency. They demand my support on planning issues, on sourcing grants and on getting the local authority to give them more support. They also demand my support in getting new facilities built and in the fundraising that is needed to staff the facilities.
Many of the groups on my patch are run by older people, often for older people. It is important that we acknowledge that in today's debate, which is about closing the opportunity gap. The Scottish Parliament is making its contribution to that aim not only by spending money on older people, but by working with older people. We are making the work that older people do go a lot further—we should celebrate the work that is done by thousands of older people in every constituency across Scotland.
I will finish by saying that we have done a huge amount to make a real difference to the quality of life for pensioners and older people across Scotland. For the past year and a half, I have been involved in the Pennell trust—[Laughter.] I am going to regret saying that. The initiative is about women aged over 45 to over 105. Older people make up a huge number of the population of Scotland and we all know that we are all moving towards old age. We can be proud of what the
The minister said at the beginning of her speech that we have to listen to older people. The SNP does that and when we do so the one issue that is raised all the time, particularly by pensioners, is the state pension.
The state pension gives single people £75.50 and a couple £120.70 a week. There is the minimum income guarantee, but surely if it is described as a minimum the Government must be saying that a top-up is necessary. That means that the state pension is far too low. We must get to European levels—in Germany and France, the state pension is 11 per cent of the gross domestic product, whereas in the UK it is 4.3 per cent. The Scottish Parliament cannot get away from the fact that the state pension is far too low.
Today's debate is about closing the opportunity gap. One way of doing so is, as others have suggested, to encourage and allow people who want to get back to work to do so. We know that age discrimination legislation will come into force in 2006, but I am worried that most employers and people in Scotland do not know about it. When I attended a conference in Glasgow on the subject a couple of weeks ago, Scottish employers' lack of knowledge of it was mentioned time and again. Wales and England are far ahead of us on the issue. One reason for that is that we are not promoting the legislation enough. I think that it was Iain Gray who replied to my questions on the matter, for which I thank him. He mentioned the publication of a booklet called "Are You Over 50?" How many of those booklets have been produced? Where are they being distributed? Who is taking them—employers or the general public?
I thank the minister. I have spoken to old-age pensioners and groups and they ask about the publication when I mention it, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is distributed.
Will the Executive promote an advertising campaign on television or somewhere else that deals with age discrimination? It is important that the public at large and employers know about the forthcoming legislation. We all know that older
I mentioned choice. I commend the SNP's amendment, especially the final words, which are:
"to address the needs of older people in Scotland the Parliament needs the full powers of an independent sovereign state."
This has been a high-quality debate worthy of the Parliament. Its tone is a suitable curtain-raiser for the tone with which we should go into the election.
I join colleagues in thanking for their service senior friends, allies and opponents who are retiring from the Parliament. In many ways, they symbolise the contribution that older people make to our society throughout Scotland. Many members have already been mentioned, but I will single out John Young and my colleague Ian Jenkins. I became a councillor in Glasgow in 1977 when John Young was the council leader. He was the best orator in Glasgow District Council and is a nice man. Through his endeavours, he has contributed to the quality of public life throughout Scotland.
Ian Jenkins made the best speech in the debate—it was erudite and had feeling, compassion and gentleness. The quality that John Young and Ian Jenkins have in common is gentleness. They have other qualities—for example, the mugging of David McLetchie by Ian Jenkins in the earlier days of the Parliament sticks in all our memories—but they behave without bitterness, rancour or nastiness, which is to be commended in the Parliament.
In summarising the debate for the Liberal Democrats, I will make three general points. First, I thank Age Concern Scotland, which, as has been said, gave us the briefing before the debate. I also thank all the other large and small voluntary bodies throughout Scotland that contribute so much to our society. They plug gaps in statutory services and provide lifeline comfort and hope to many people. They give the Parliament the benefit of their practical experience and are often the unsung heroes, possessing all the virtues that we would like our country to have.
Secondly, despite the snipers, the denigration and the bitchy detraction, the Parliament and the
Many members have mentioned the third issue that I want to mention. Like other people, older people are citizens who benefit from the general health of our society. Quite possibly, they make the most significant contribution to the voluntary sector, which I mentioned earlier. Of course, they have children and grandchildren, some of whom will have benefited from, for example, the student settlement that we achieved in the early days of the Parliament.
I mention as an example the Glasgow Old People's Welfare Association, which runs clubs, residential homes and other facilities throughout the city. The association makes an enormous contribution to the quality of life of many people. It has an unbelievable 2,000 volunteers and is led by a formidable lady called Sheena Glass. It has a total lack of central support or bureaucracy, but her style and personality goes right across the organisation and all the good work that it does.
Another example is a pensioner group in my home area of Rutherglen, although admittedly the group has shrunk in numbers in the past few years. It is led by a lady who I thought was probably dead long since; she is still the chair. She is kept going by the responsibility that she feels for the older people in her group. I might add that almost all of those people are younger than she is—she must be in her late 80s or 90s at least.
I remind the chamber of the last part of the Executive motion, which refers to
"services ... which will support older people in living healthy, active and independent lives."
That is the target of all our efforts. That is the attitude behind the transport concession and free personal care. The transport concession will probably be the most popular action that the Parliament has taken, because it helps people to get out and about without financial concerns. It is talked about on the buses—I hear people talk about it all the time and it is very much welcomed. As Christine Grahame said, that facility must be matched by the availability of services when they are required. Buses that run on an hourly schedule
I commend to the Parliament the safe stations initiative, which Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive operates in Paisley. I had the opportunity to visit that project recently. A control centre monitors almost all the local stations within the Strathclyde network and there is an interactive help button at the stations. The initiative is important and I would like it to be extended throughout Scotland. Pharmacies, post offices and pensions have been mentioned. Those are also important issues.
I will finish by mentioning the fact that, a couple of years ago, I attended a 100th birthday party—that is probably symptomatic of my growing age and the people whom I happen to know. The party was held at the Overtoun park bowling club in Rutherglen. Until fairly recently, the gentleman concerned walked a mile each day up and down to Fernhill—not an easy hill to walk up—to play bowls at the club where he still regularly wins medals. As a concession to age, he stopped walking back up the hill about a year ago and now takes the bus.
That is an example of what we all want for older people in our society. We want to see healthy, active and independent older people who lead happy and useful lives. That is what the debate is all about. That is what all of us, throughout the various parties, are in various ways trying to achieve. If we can make some contribution—I believe that the Parliament has—towards reaching those objectives, our existence here over the past four years will have been worth while.
Members should not let the white hair fool them—I am the baby of the contributors in this debate. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to be closing for the Tories in the debate—and the boss ain't here.
I give the chamber my apologies for not leaving promptly. Members may wonder why I say that. I should explain that I had apologised to the minister and the Presiding Officer because I expected to have to leave for a radio engagement at lunch time; however, that engagement was cancelled because of the war. On that note, I record my support for our troops abroad and wish them safety and godspeed. I also apologise for my short absence earlier. That was a consequence of a weak bladder—something that is not confined to the old.
I restate briefly where the Conservatives stand in our approach to the debate. We are committed to a health service that is universal in its reach and available to everyone, wherever they live—it must be available free at the point of need, regardless of ability to pay. It must be high quality and apply the highest professional standards and techniques that are based on the latest knowledge. It must put the needs of the patient first as the paramount consideration.
Keith Harding touched on justice issues, which are the cause of one of the greatest insecurities that people in Scotland feel. Those issues affect minorities in our society disproportionately, especially older people. We believe that it is time to reclaim neighbourhoods from the criminals who destroy communities and imprison fearful people in their homes. People should be allowed to walk through their communities free from the fear of crime—God knows, they have earned that.
On social justice, Keith Harding mentioned, as I have done in the past, that the Conservatives introduced the right-to-buy scheme in 1980. No policy that has been introduced since then has done more to lift the vulnerable in Scotland out of poverty.
On transport, concessionary schemes and their extension to cover peak times are all well and good, but they are no flipping use if the level of service and the access to it are not sufficient.
I concede that point and that the Executive has done well in introducing the concessionary travel scheme, but there are areas in which the scheme does not work as well as it might. For example, I am regularly assailed, through correspondence, by a gentleman—a senior citizen, no less—in a suburb of Cumbernauld called Banton, who harangues me to try to get better bus services in his area. In that area, people in their 80s and 90s have to wait for buses that, in their opinion, come on the basis of a calendar, not a timetable.
I have never been able to tie it properly; I cannae ride a bike, either. [ Laughter. ] That is actually true—it is one of my many failings. In fact, I am still working on tying my shoelaces. To return to more prosaic matters, I ask Lyndsay McIntosh whether she and her group will support Kenny MacAskill's member's bill, which aims to reregulate bus services.
In a word, no. However, I can give the member a suggestion for his shoes—get Velcro fastenings, dear.
I agree whole-heartedly with the comments that have been made about skills for the over-50 work force. I know many old people, some of whom are sitting not too far from me, who have a lot to contribute—they ain't done yet.
As the minister is aware, the central heating programme has not been an unalloyed success and there are little problems here and there. It would not be fair to portray the scheme as blemish free. The minister also mentioned youth courts. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill was strengthened by our amendments and I pay tribute to my colleague Bill Aitken for lodging them. The minister also mentioned that there are more police. That is happening slowly, but there is safety in numbers.
Police numbers are not at their highest.
Gender equality is dear to the minister's heart. Significant lifestyle changes are now possible, but, in my grandmother's day, regardless of whether someone was working or retired, their life was pretty much the same, as Johann Lamont said. Nowadays, the situation is a bit less difficult, because people can change their lifestyle as they reach the silver-tide era. However, matters are different in our ethnic minority communities and we should pay attention to that.
The speech by Kenny Gibson of the tie was one of the most thoughtful that I have heard in four years and I pay tribute to him. My mother, too, often comments, "I don't want a free television licence; I want my cataracts done." She sat for months and months and had me phoning up to get an appointment. Here is a difficulty that members
Kenny Gibson also mentioned respect, career breaks, pensions and transport. Of course, there was Keith Harding's speech as well, much of which I have repeated. There is no doubt about it—means testing demeans the silver tide of voters.
Oh boy. In that case, I pay tribute to previous contributors Trish Godman, Kay Ullrich, Bill Butler, Mary Scanlon and Donald Gorrie. When Ian Jenkins mentioned Tina I was truly nervous. I thought that he had heard about last night and Dr Sylvia Jackson and me. That was worrying. What a lovely speech Colin Campbell made. I will leave it to him to tell members what a CRAFT moment is. John Young should believe me when I say that we will communicate at some stage in the future.
I have one or two comments, for which I crave the Presiding Officer's indulgence.
Indeed we are.
However unwillingly, I shall be making way for an older person. I leave it to others to make the comparisons. However, there is life in this old dog yet. They used to say that life begins at 40. When I got there, they had bloody raised it to 50. At this rate, I will never catch up.
It has been my privilege to serve in this first session of Parliament. I never sought a place in history, but it comes with the territory and is a humbling prospect. I have made many, many friends across the parties. I should tell members that Mike Russell did not send me a Valentine's card and I was disappointed.
No, I did not. He signalled his intention up to me.
Colleagues across the parties in Central Scotland were strangers who became friends. I am sure that there are many more friends that I have yet to make. No matter what the circumstances of our departures today—to pastures new or out to grass, and whether assured of success or disappointed by the outcome—I send all members every best wish.
All I can say is that I hope that I am not retiring—I hope that I will still have my job after 1 May.
I thought earlier that I should say something about colleagues across the parties who are retiring; they will all be sadly missed, but they will just have to take my word for it. I hope that my actions have showed how dearly I hold them all, because I feel that if I start to say anything I will just get upset and make a complete and utter fool of myself, so I will not do it.
One thing that Colin Campbell said really struck home; I will paraphrase him. He talked about age being a state of mind, which is absolutely true because, until today, I had not thought of those colleagues as people who were older—I exclude from that Duncan Hamilton. Members have stood up and said that they are retiring, but they are colleagues I have thought of merely as my contemporaries—age has not come into it at any time until today, when they all stood up and stated how ancient they were, and that they were all going off into the sunset.
It struck me that I am getting on a bit as well. Much to my shock, I saw that there was an Executive document called "Are you over 50?", which is a guide to services for older people. I was thinking, "I'm nearly there myself", then Sarah Boyack talked about an institution for women who are over 45.
I am deeply grateful that I have been allowed an intervention. I referred to the Pennell Initiative for Women's Health, which is a group that was set up to promote older women's health. I apologise for my earlier slip of the tongue, which I hope will be corrected in the Official Report .
I thought that Sarah Boyack would appreciate that opportunity, but I still have a wee bit of difficulty with being elderly because I am over 45.
I do not know whether it is the same for other members, but I recently started getting Saga Magazine sent to me every month here in Parliament. Only when I heard Helen Eadie clarifying what Saga is did I think that I should perhaps have thrown the magazine in the bin. However, I thank Colin Campbell for kindly gifting me his Saga pen to remember him by.
To return to the reality of the debate—older people's place in Scotland—the minister rightly cited the developments that Parliament has implemented on behalf of older people. The minister also said that nobody should have to live on less than the state pension and the minimum income guarantee. However, Sandra White rightly
Another member—I cannot remember whom—referred to the fact that there are local initiatives that involve giving people welfare benefits advice. For example, I think that the Eaga Partnership does that when its staff visit people for the central heating programme. We should consider giving such advice nationally. We should be able to tie all the different initiatives into the fundamental question of whether people have enough money to live on; it should not be difficult to include that in every initiative for older people.
The minister made it sound as if the land of milk and honey had arrived during the past four years, but I am sure that she would be the first to admit—Bill Butler referred to this—that we still have a long way to go. I agree that changes have been made, but it is a sad indictment of our society that we still have a long way to go.
Free personal care was referred to. I am extremely proud of the fact that it was the Parliament rather than the Executive that forced the issue on free personal care. Everyone in the Parliament has something to be proud of in that respect. However, there are problems with free personal care, which Mary Scanlon highlighted. She was right that we have all had constituency problems involving free personal care not working in the way that everyone thought that it would and, indeed, in the way that Parliament intended it to work.
Transport and travel were also referred to. Kenny Gibson and I were curious about why Lewis Macdonald rather than Des McNulty will close the debate for the minister, but we were not long into the debate when we realised why. Members started to let slip the fact there was to be a big announcement on national concessionary travel—I think that Dr Sylvia Jackson eventually blew the gaff and stole Lewis Macdonald's thunder. Again, I think that the provision of national concessionary travel is a triumph for a viable Opposition and the Parliament because the Executive has been forced to admit that the localised concessionary travel policy has not worked and that concessionary travel must be rolled out nationally. I look forward to hearing the proposal's being formally announced.
Keith Harding said something important when he said that what elderly people require is to be treated with dignity rather than to be patronised. I tried to imagine anyone trying to patronise my colleagues Kay Ullrich and Winnie Ewing; if someone did try that, I think that they would be quickly told something. Keith Harding also showed
Mr Harding also went on about the how the right to buy was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to alleviate poverty, but he will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. On the minister's intervention on the right to buy, I do not like the suggestion that someone who happened to buy their council house was too stupid to realise that doing so would have implications.
Does Linda Fabiani agree that one of the big issues around the right to buy was that it made logical sense for people to buy their council house because rents were so high because they were not appropriately supported? Does she agree that people who bought their council houses did not think about how they would maintain and repair their houses after they had bought them? The problem was not that people were stupid, but that council housing and the right to buy operated against ordinary working class people. Linda Fabiani accepted that point in committee.
I thank the member—I get the point.
That problem also exists in the private sector. If we consider all tenements, it is not only ex-council houses that have problems with repairs and maintenance. When I was a housing professional, I often came across a problem for elderly people in relation to the right to buy, which was that the families of elderly people would buy their parents' council house on their behalf, but the family situation would change. I have had in my office many times elderly people who were homeless because their families had disenfranchised them. The right to buy did not really protect the elderly.
I am running out of time, but I cannot leave the debate without saying firmly that the only thing that can really make a difference for the elderly of our country is to give us the powers that would truly make a difference. A viable independent sovereign state could make its own decisions about how we treat the elderly. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that the 21 most developed countries give 7.4 per cent of their GDP to their state pensions—this country gives only 4.3 per cent, so we have nothing to be proud of. Roll on independence and the opportunity to change that and many other things.
As we have heard today, people's priorities and interests might change as they grow older, but that does not mean that they stop being active, interested and involved. Today's debate has provided clear examples of that.
Older people are the backbone of families and communities. They give of their experience, knowledge and time as carers, volunteers, community activists, parents and grandparents. The term social capital is very relevant to what older people have to offer. Those who write off people once they reach a certain age are making a serious and significant mistake and the Scottish Executive has acknowledged the huge contribution that Scotland's older people want to make and the resource that they represent. Older people want to be valued and they want access to opportunities, jobs and services.
The Scottish Parliament has rightly worked to ensure that older people have the health and care services that they need. I welcome the tribute that Alex Neil paid to Henry McLeish for his part in introducing free personal care for the elderly. However, sometimes the concentration on such matters can lead to the assumption that they are all that elderly people are interested in and that the entire age group is in need of care. That is patently not true and the key to a policy for successful aging in the decades to come is that we recognise the extent of the role of older people in our communities and society.
People of all ages have talent and ability to offer. For example, older people have an excellent record in business start-ups and often outdo their younger competitors. As has been mentioned in the debate, many employers in Scotland have come to recognise the benefits of having a diverse work force and the gains that can be made through the experience and maturity that is represented by older workers.
In the past four years, employment levels for older workers have risen faster than they have for the work force as a whole. From 2006, age discrimination in the workplace will be unlawful, which will build on the current code of practice on age diversity in employment. The age positive campaign aims to raise awareness among employers through a series of events that are planned throughout Scotland in May and June, and with an updated code of practice on age diversity, which Iain Gray has launched. The change in attitude that is required is a key challenge and the legal change that will ensure that the rights of older people have the same protection as the rights of other sections of society is important in that regard.
Being able to get out and about is key to making the most of everything that is available to people in their communities. As has been said by a number of members, public transport plays an important part in many older people's lives. In rural areas, especially, public transport can be a lifeline and that is why we are investing significant funds in our rural transport initiatives. I am sorry to have to disappoint Linda Fabiani, but I will not be making any new announcement today in that regard. However, it is well known—other than on the SNP benches—that Iain Gray announced some weeks ago that any future Administration in which Labour is involved will create a national concessionary fares scheme.
The rural transport fund and the rural community initiative offer real benefits to older people who are unable to access the bus services to which concessionary fare schemes apply. For example, I recently visited Peebles in Ian Jenkins' constituency to launch the new community minibus that the Tweeddale Association of Voluntary Organisations is operating as part of that rural community transport initiative. The new minibus will enable many older people who would otherwise find it difficult to get out to access services and to visit friends and family.
I am delighted that Alex Neil has given me the opportunity to respond on that matter, because yesterday morning I shared a platform with Kenny MacAskill at an election hustings on transport matters. Kenny made it quite clear that the SNP's commitment to re-regulation is one that will give local authorities the power to regulate buses if they so wish.
I must tell Alex Neil, as I told Kenny MacAskill yesterday, that that is precisely what the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 already created through the measures that allow quality contracts to be introduced. I am sure that the SNP will catch up with us in due course, and that it will become aware not only of what we intend to do, but what we have already done.
On September 30 last year, we introduced free off-peak bus travel for all elderly and disabled people in Scotland. One million retired people throughout Scotland have experienced the benefits of that scheme, which makes a key contribution to providing access for older people to services such as health care, education, welfare and jobs. It also contributes to the greater involvement of elderly people in the general life of the community.
We are committed to further enhancement of concessionary travel. This morning, I met the chairman of the Scottish Pensioners Association to draw attention to the equalisation of age eligibility for concessionary travel. From Tuesday 1 April, 125,000 men aged between 60 and 64 will be able to benefit from the same free concessionary travel that is currently available to men of pensionable age.
No one doubts the minister's sincerity, but I would like an answer to my earlier question. What is the Executive's position on employing people who are over 60? Does it include a complete cut-off at age 60? Some literature seems to indicate that it has, while other literature says that the Executive is not age discriminatory in the least.
I will come back to the point that Dorothy-Grace Elder raises. It is certainly a matter that I shall seek to address, but there are one or two other points that I want to respond to first.
The introduction of age equalisation is only one more step. As I said, we have already made it clear that those on the Executive benches intend, in the next Parliament, to create a single national free concessionary travel scheme for pensioners and people over 60 throughout Scotland. To make that possible, we have made available significant funds, which have already amounted to nearly £100 million a year.
Beyond that, we are also committed to working with the UK Government to improve access to transport for disabled people, including disabled elderly people, in Scotland. Last May, we established the mobility and access committee for Scotland to allow disabled people to feed in their views on transport issues and to suggest early practical improvements that could be made. Robert Brown mentioned the safe stations initiative in the Strathclyde area, and many other such initiatives are already under way. The mobility and access committee for Scotland will assist us in spreading that best practice.
Learning and lifelong learning are also areas of great interest to older people. In February, Iain Gray launched our strategy for lifelong learning to highlight those matters. Gaining new skills and new knowledge is a lifetime opportunity; it is not an opportunity only for young adults, as was once the view. That is why our strategy emphasises the lifelong approach—we want everyone to be able to access learning that is most relevant to their needs.
The internet is just one of the latest tools that people can use to gain new knowledge and access to the internet is clearly something that can be highly beneficial for older people. I was
As I said earlier, health care is not the only thing that matters to older people, although it does of course matter: many of us will need to be looked after at some time in the future, so we must ensure that when that time comes the necessary services are available to make that possible. That is why the Executive introduced free personal and nursing care, a decision that was welcomed by Help the Aged and many other organisations. There are issues to be resolved in the implementation of free personal care, which is why we are assessing its progress rigorously and have committed £250 million over two years to achieving it. Through the monitoring group, we and our partners will ensure that those implementation issues are addressed effectively.
In the health service, delayed discharge is an issue that is of particular interest to older people. Last year's data clearly show that we are succeeding in reducing the figures for delayed discharge. I look forward to the latest figures being announced later this week, and to finding out whether we have continued to make an impact on them, as I suspect we have.
The matter of access to information has been raised by a number of members, including Paul Martin, Ian Jenkins and Sandra White. We are committed to ensuring that older people have access to information. The "Are you over 50?" booklet has been widely distributed through job centres, libraries, general practitioner surgeries, citizens advice bureaux and older people's organisations. It is a product of the Department for Work and Pensions and is aimed at ensuring that people have access to the information that they need.
The one-stop shop idea that has been mentioned is very positive, and it is something that can be built upon. Access to good and accurate information is vital and through the Executive's publications, its website and the work that we are continuing to do with elderly forums, we are addressing the best ways in which to make information available to people when and where they need it.
I am pleased to confirm Frank McAveety's success this week in resolving the problem of fees in the care home sector. We have delivered an
Community pharmacies have been mentioned. For those who missed it, Frank McAveety's recent announcement was that we will not accept the recommendations of the Office of Fair Trading; in Scotland, we will retain community pharmacies and will give them the protection that they need, because we acknowledge their importance in providing services to older people.
Dorothy-Grace Elder asked about the Scottish Executive's position as an employer. Sixty is the standard retirement age for the work force, but that position is under review and we expect a report on the subject to come out in the course of the next couple of months.
As somebody who comes from a profession in which people cannot wait to get a package and to get out early, I find the notion of people wanting to work beyond their retirement age a bit strange. Does the minister agree that some of the issues around employment beyond the age of 60 relate to the fact that people have poor pensions and do not necessarily have the resources to do the many interesting things that people wish to do in old age? That is why work might offer a better alternative for them. Although we should argue against age discrimination, we should also talk about people having the right not to work after 60.
I support the view that people should have the right to choose. If people choose to continue working for Scottish ministers longer than they must, then who are we to stand in their way? The ability of older people to choose whether to work will be important for all of us.
Scots of all ages want opportunities to be active and to participate. We in the Executive are determined to remove the barriers that prevent that, particularly in transport, lifelong learning, enterprise, housing, health and care. At the beginning of the Parliament, we said that things would get better for older people: they have, and there is a range of ways in which things have got very much got better, including free concessionary travel, free personal care and free central heating. They will continue to get better, but more must be done. That is why we need to work together with our partners in the voluntary and private sectors and throughout central Government and local government to ensure that we deliver services for older people. We want to make Scotland an even better place to live for people of all ages—that includes those who retire from the Parliament today.