My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on older people and their rights. I should perhaps begin by declaring an interest: I am myself an older person. Why is the subject so important? As everyone knows, we are all now living a lot longer. Fortunately, because of improved healthcare, we are also much healthier. This should all give much pleasure, but there has been a lot of discussion about problems that can arise.
Of course, much of that has centred around additional costs. Pensions have often been discussed in this House. Until relatively recently we had one of the best pension schemes in the world, but those of the generation benefiting from employer-provided schemes based on final salary provision have been the fortunate ones. Nowadays, if employers provide a pension at all, it is not based on final salaries. Those in the main have been discontinued for new employees, and sometimes for existing employees, and replaced by other less beneficial arrangements. The Government have introduced a new scheme involving compulsory payments, from which it is possible for employees to opt out. The employer has to contribute, and there is a contribution from the Government via the tax system. However, that has occasioned some criticism, as the eventual benefits from it do not appear to be much in excess of what a non-contributor could gain from simply relying on the benefit system. It is not yet in operation, but the intention of the whole scheme is good—to get people to save for retirement. We shall have to see how it works in practice.
So far as the state scheme is concerned, the Government are increasing the basic state pension with effect from April. In addition, pension credits are available on a means-tested basis, but many older people resent means-testing and not all who should claim do so. I always advise people to claim if I think that they are eligible. Those who do so are grateful for the extra support provided. Another concern arises in relation to women pensioners. Despite some recent adjustments in the qualifying conditions, many still feel that women would benefit more from a scheme based on a residential test than from the present one. It looks as though arguments in that connection are likely to continue.
A number of much valued benefits have been made available to older people. In London and other cities, free travel permits are made available to elderly people and the disabled. I benefit from that scheme. Pensioners over the age of 75 no longer have to pay for a TV licence. The Government have introduced the payment of additional grants to enable older people to improve home heating arrangements, so that fewer old people suffer from inadequate heating in their homes during cold weather. From the reports of the recent Budget Statement, I gather that that will also be increased. Many local authorities have excellent schemes to support older people, particularly the increasing numbers who now live on their own. All those excellent schemes should be supported and maintained.
Further issues arise. Many older people want to continue to work. Who is an older person? Someone over 50? Is it right that 65 should be regarded as the age at which it is right that people have to retire? Many older people do not think so. I was interested in the manifesto recently produced by Saga Magazine after consulting its readership. That monthly magazine is devoted to the interests of older people. As a result, it is pressing for an end to the compulsory retirement age and to put in its place a flexible, phased approach to retirement. That is also is the view of the Age and Employment Network—TAEN—which is part of Age Concern. I have often spoken to briefs provided by TAEN in this House, in support of its view that the default retirement age should be discontinued. I understand that the Government intend to review that in 2011.
Of course there are many occupations where early retirement is necessary, possibly for safety reasons, in which event alternative, lighter work should be made available for those who wish for it. One such occupation is the construction industry, which incidentally has a high level of industrial accidents. Obviously an earlier retirement age is appropriate in that kind of work. But many people welcome involvement in a work environment. There is evidence that the social involvement of working with other people leads to better health. Unfortunately, a widespread view discourages the employment of older workers. The research conducted by TAEN reveals that many people made redundant over the age of 50 find it very difficult to get alternative work. After failing to get interviews, many simply lose confidence. One such individual said that,
“age is the new discrimination”,
and that all one has to look forward to is “a bleak old age”.
That is not the view of the Government, as I understand it. The new Equality Bill includes age as one of the protected characteristics. The Government understand that the changing demographic agenda requires us all to rethink work, training, retirement and pension provision. The employment White Paper sets out proposals for helping the over-50s. These include additional training for jobcentre advisers to support unemployed people over 50. There are arrangements to provide for specialist back-to-work support, widening access to additional training. The over-50s will be added to the list of those eligible for fast-tracking if they are judged to have significant barriers to work. The White Paper also says that the Government will introduce a working tax credit for those working part-time past retirement age, which seems a good idea. Many older people would like the opportunity to work part-time if they could afford to do so. A working tax credit would encourage that, and perhaps encourage employers to provide such employment.
TAEN welcomes a number of other suggestions, which it says make up a positive agenda that must be rolled out effectively and quickly. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also advocated a radical overhaul of employment policies to benefit older workers. These proposals include abolishing the default retirement age, the extension of the right to request flexible working to all, overhauling employer recruitment practices to prevent discrimination, and improved training and development. It seems that there is an increasing understanding of the need to change our view about ageing. The Saga manifesto refers to the need for ageism to be abolished. It is interesting to note that the Minister of State for Pensions and the Ageing Society, my honourable friend Angela Eagle, has called for the media to tackle what she calls the outdated stereotypes of age. She says:
“We need to see a balanced image of later life which will help tackle ageism in our society and our consultation has shown us that there is real demand for this”.
I am sure that this is a call that will have a positive response in this House. We can all do without media stereotyping of what elderly people are supposed to be like.
We should all welcome the opportunity to live longer and to do so in a happier and healthier way, but we need to make the necessary social provision for that to occur. There is a further problem surrounding ageing to which the Government have recently been paying attention. As I said earlier, if people can do work that they enjoy, they are likely to remain healthier for much longer. However, many people will need social care. We have recently been discussing the personal care Bill, which the Government introduced as a first step in what is intended to be a national scheme designed to ensure that elderly and disabled people who need care—both nursing and personal—should receive it at home for as long as possible.
The Bill was designed to provide care at home for free in the case of, first, the most needy people. I regret that the Bill has not, in its original form, received the support of this House. It has been carried but with substantial amendments. Whether we like it or not, the care of an ageing population is going to cost money. It is no longer possible to rely on family members to provide the care required. Children no longer live around the corner. Many of them have accepted the advice of previous Governments—particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—to “get on their bikes”, and some have got on their bikes and gone miles away for jobs. Sometimes the jobs have been abroad. As a result, many older people live entirely on their own, although some local authorities do provide a support service for such people.
Care homes are expensive and do not always provide an acceptable level of care. There is a case for a more stringent system of inspection. As already indicated, many older people want to stay in their own home. The idea that they may have to sell their home in order to pay for care home fees is distressing for many elderly people. However, where families care for elderly relatives, a greater level of support for those carers is required, and I believe that the Government are committed to providing that. I was a carer myself several years ago and I know how much I would have welcomed the sort of support that is available through the Personal Care at Home Bill, which we have recently discussed in this House.
What is certain, however, is that all this will cost money. There is a need for consensus between the major parties about the way in which this should be provided. A number of differing propositions have been made, but a long-term plan to which there is general agreement must eventually emerge. The older generation, whose needs must now be met, have themselves been taxpayers for many years and in some instances are part of the generation that helped to win the last Great War. They certainly deserve our support. However, we also have to plan for future generations of pensioners.
Work, pensions, retirement, care—those are the issues to which I have referred and all of them are important to old people, but not ageism, because none of us wants that. The Government have already taken a number of steps to support older people and it seems that further steps are under consideration. I therefore await with interest what the Minister has to say in response to this debate. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for bringing forward this debate. My subscription to Saga Magazine was paid some years ago and I feel well qualified to speak on this subject.
There are two factors which cannot be disputed. First, we know about the ageing of our population and we know that a large number of older people need assistance in one form or another We also know more about the black and minority ethnic communities—the BME communities, as I shall refer to them. Nine per cent of England’s population are from BME groups and 3 per cent are aged 65 and over. There are differences within ethnic groups but one pattern is clear: there is rapid ageing among this population and so we will see more and more older people from minority ethnic groups in our daily lives. We also know that the UK’s ethnic minority groups have a much younger age structure than the white population—a reflection of migration and fertility patterns.
Why is that so? I shall explain. Immigration from the Commonwealth countries started in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Let us not forget that at that time the Tory slogan under Harold Macmillan was, “You’ve never had it so good”, and I am sure that most of us wanted to enjoy some of the benefits. We then saw the migration of people from the peripheral margins of the Empire to the metropolitan centre itself. The first migration figures were published in the White Paper Immigration from the Commonwealth, in September 1965. It demonstrated that a substantial number of migrants were economically active and that women were of child-bearing age. We took little note then that a large-scale economic migration in such a short period would result in a substantial increase in older people in 50 years’ time. That time is now.
There is “no return back” for most of the BME elders After all, they are British, having contributed much in their younger lives to the economy, and now in old age many are involved in care or caring. We know that like majority elders, BME elders too have a range of experiences, resources and needs. We know that poverty has an ethnic face. Although we live in one of the rich OECD countries, we have to face the facts: 17 per cent of white households live in poverty compared with 43 per cent of Pakistani/Bangladeshi households; the figure is 29 per cent for Indian and Black Caribbean/Black British and 30 per cent for Chinese households. There is almost a doubling of poverty among BME elders, and with increasing poverty comes a greater need for care and support.
Many health and social care organisations are funded by the taxpayer, together with long-established large voluntary age organisations that meet older people’s needs. However, many of these organisations have not fully adjusted their services to reflect the multi-ethnic client base. So what do you do if you come from a BME background? If you are fortunate, you may find self-help organisations that BME communities—sometimes elders—have set up across the country to reflect an ethnic minority population base. It is not their desire to be ethnically separate; it is simply that, in the absence of culturally responsive mainstream services, they have had to organise care and support themselves.
Is it true that we know more about BME elders today because they have been a government priority? I am afraid that the picture is rather different, perhaps with the exception of the Department of Health, which has done much to support developments. Last week, on 18 March, I had the pleasure of chairing a conference to celebrate 12 years of a unique organisation called PRIAE—Policy Research Institute on Ageing and Ethnicity. I declare my interest as a trustee and vice-chairman of this body, although my only involvement is voluntary, not financial. It is an international independent organisation that has spearheaded research, information and developments in the ageing of minorities. It has, by itself, generated some £7 million grant income and created more than 50 specialist jobs in the 12 years.
PRIAE’s track record is such that when I chaired a session at the European Parliament in Brussels some years ago, many attendees thought that the organisation was government-funded and wanted the same in various parts of Europe. This is because PRIAE is credited for research, learning and service developments in employment, care, housing and citizenship. Why, you may ask, is it the first of its kind? The answer lies in the fact that, until this organisation was established, there was a vacuum in policy, targeted research and engagement of BME elders in developments that concern them, including increasing their capacity to be policy-active. In 1998 when PRIAE began, there was no national study on dementia and BME elders. Now there is, and next week educational resources in this area will be launched with the University of Central Lancashire and the National Mental Health Development Unit, as we know that one in five will have dementia at the age of 80-plus, and much of the care for such people falls on the family.
Similarly, we now have extensive data to design and develop responsive services that BME elders can use and be supported with. These data are on the health, social care, housing, minority organisation providers and family networks of some 26 ethnic groups. This is as a result of Europe’s largest research study in the area called MEC—minority elderly care—conducted by PRIAE. I am very proud of this for two reasons: first, no longer can policymakers and providers of services say, “We do not know what to do because there is no research”; and, secondly, this was the first time that a small charitable organisation had been funded by the European Commission in this area in its 26 years of history, and it was a first for a BME organisation It is satisfying to know that all this is being led from our country, the United Kingdom, for the benefit of many across Europe.
The question is, how much support are the Government providing to this sort of organisation? Due to this research, there is now a credible set of results, perfectly suited to the Government’s personalisation agenda. Have the Government informed themselves of this work and used it to make sure that minority elders are integral to the personalisation agenda? If these research results are implemented, it could make a big difference to BME elders’ well-being. MEC research shows that minority ethnic elders experience a range of health conditions, services and professional barriers, and remain largely invisible in care policy and practice agendas. Health and social care services are underused due to a range of factors including lack of knowledge, language difficulties, income and inappropriateness of services. When you examine the veneer of much of this policy, there are also considered to be some discriminatory assumptions and complexities within the health system which separate them out from others. However, when they are accessed and used, minority ethnic elders show clearly what their expectations are. Services must be quality-based, and not just culturally appropriate. This is an important finding, since for too long the issue of ageing and minorities has been limited to a focus on cultural and linguistic adjustments.
Health and social care professionals are key in assisting older people. In the research in the 10 countries, such professionals generally accept that minority ethnic elders have different needs, and that services should be culturally responsive. They regard minority ethnic elders’ knowledge and cultural factors as affecting access to services, rather than as added issues relating to organisational customs and practices.
Minority and voluntary organisations are increasingly supplying various supporting services such as home care, day care, social support and housing in a few cases, as the research has shown. In this sense, they are acting as primary providers of specialist care, rather than complementing mainstream services. What prevents their growth is finance and infrastructure, and collaboration with the mainstream is often very problematic.
One can cite a number of examples in relation to the expectations of minorities. When you hear comments of this nature from the people for whom PRIAE provides services, particularly those who have lived into their 70s, 80s and 90s, and are not in the same comfortable situation as the vast number of old people in this country, you cannot but be stirred into wanting to create policies that will serve them well in their old age. We must do this urgently.
I welcome the personalisation agenda, and I ask the Government how they intend to personalise BME elder issues so that they are on the same ladder as everyone else. BME elders’ housing needs are often lost in the discussion of “they look after their own”, but choice must prevail. What has the national strategy on housing in an ageing society achieved regarding funding of specialist BME extra care housing?
In the mean time, with historical neglect and a growing BME elder population with multiple and complex needs, BME age organisations are struggling to maintain their operations. Some have disappeared due to the funding crisis. We are reminded that BME communities are part of British society. BME elders are British, yet we see the dangers of parallel but unequal services developing, with different organisational lifespans and funding. Let me illustrate this with a quote from the founder and director of PRIAE, Professor Naina Patel, from her report produced at the request of the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care of the Elderly. She said:
“In the late 1990s, the Government’s own inspection survey … point to the inadequacies of mainstream providers and the compensatory effect of minority ethnic organisations who continue to act as ‘primary providers’ in the post-community care era … Given this continuity of mainstream neglect and/or indifference, we can state that this constitutes de facto racism. In other words, the mainstream services by default are structuring the segmentation of care to minority ethnic elders into a long-term solution. Our concern here is not that the location of services is in BME elder care centres. Rather that such location tends to be inadequately supported, neither maintained nor expanded. This makes the development of comprehensive services and an ability to reach all sections of BME elders (disabled, frail for example) problematic”.
This was stated about a decade ago. In spite of several welcome capacity-building measures that the Government have introduced, we are here today, a decade later, asking what support BME age organisations have experienced so that they do not remain impoverished. Our central recommendation, consistently made, is that these organisations should be better resourced and supported through mainstream funding, not as an alternative but as a vital mainstream part of services. This is beginning to happen through some government programmes, for which they should take credit, but they interpret “mainstream” a little differently.
Let me add a word of caution. In the interests of mainstreaming, white voluntary organisations are encouraged and financed to support BME organisations. We welcome learning and transfer opportunities, but we must ask, is this what is happening? Are benefits flowing in both directions? BME organisations are rightly concerned that this opportunity may gear white voluntary organisations to be more competent in multicultural care, but leave BME organisations as second best. Such possible unintended outcomes require that the Government implement their mainstream programme with care and concern. How do they intend to use the expertise generated by these organisations? We have seen little evidence to give us hope. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with some of these issues when he responds.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden on securing this debate on a matter that is close to our hearts. Being over the retirement age, I, too, declare an interest. In Building a society for all ages, the cross-department strategy paper of July 2009, the Government called for a major culture change, where,
“people are no longer defined by age and everyone is able to play a full part”.
This was one of the many welcome signs that government policies across the board are increasingly reflecting and coming to grips with the challenge of a rapidly ageing society. However, the very title of this debate today, in singling out the need to assist older people, points out how far we as a society have yet to go in meeting that aspiration.
In their strategy paper, DWP, DCLG and the Department of Health call for better planning for later life, support for families across generations, encouragement of businesses to adapt to a changing workforce, and for public services and local communities to embrace and be accessible to people of all ages. We are very far from achieving this vision of the ageless citizen and that is why we need special measures.
Nowhere is this more important than in efforts to raise the income levels of older people so that they are included in the mainstream of society. In the pension credit we have seen a measure that has made significant inroads on poverty among the old. DWP figures show that net incomes of pensioner households increased by 25 per cent between 1998-99 and 2007-08 compared to a real earnings growth of 11 per cent. Obviously such an increase from a low baseline is not enough, and there is still a substantial minority of retired people living in poverty. However, it has been a positive step along the way, on which the Government are to be congratulated.
In reflecting on the Government’s many measures to assist older people and on the challenges that remain, I should like to focus on housing, which is one of the most urgent policy issues facing the next Government. Housing has a major impact on the health and welfare of older people, who have long been overrepresented in poor housing—particularly the older old—with private tenants proportionately the worst housed, followed by older owner occupiers. A recent report by the Building Research Establishment and Warwick Law School estimates that poor housing in England is costing the National Health Service in excess of £600 million a year. Given the significant use of health services by older people and their prevalence in poor housing, it is clear that investment in housing has the potential to make major savings in the cost of healthcare, as well as promoting the well-being of older people.
I should like to discuss what government action has done to ameliorate the present housing situation of older people and what it can do about housing that is no longer defined in relation to age, is barrier free and accessible to all ages. Older people have benefited from positive housing measures such as the Decent Homes programme. This £40 billion programme was aimed at transforming the quality of our housing stock, which had been appallingly neglected when this Government came to power. The programme set out to ensure that all social housing would be of a decent standard within 10 years. It has been rolled out through the country—visibly so for anyone walking around their neighbourhood in recent years—and its implementation has been described by the recent Select Committee inquiry into housing standards, Beyond Decent Homes, as having involved a significant change to the landscape of the social-housing sector. As the Chartered Institute of Housing said in its evidence to that committee, the programme,
“can be regarded as a major success story”.
As 26 per cent of householders over the age of 65 are social-housing tenants, the Decent Homes programme will have made a positive impact on the well-being of older people of which this Government can be very proud.
Like the Forth Bridge, however, a housing stock as old as ours will always need more work. Care & Repair England has drawn attention to the pressing need to move on from these major improvements in the social housing sector to the sector where far greater numbers of older people live—in owner-occupied and private-rented housing. There are 5.3 million owner-occupied non-decent homes compared with 1.1 million social-rented and 0.8 million private-rented. Eighty-six per cent—that is 865,000—of older householders in houses in serious disrepair live in private sector housing. As Care & Repair England says, there are now more low-income home owners than low-income social-rented tenants, but they get little or no housing help. Growing numbers of low-income older home owners are struggling to repair and maintain their properties, and expecting them to do this out of equity release is unrealistic. Beyond Decent Homes recommends that the Government should set a target to bring all private sector housing up to a decent standard, and I hope that the next Government will act swiftly on this.
As we all know, properties need maintenance, and as we get older we find it more difficult to do simple jobs around the house, which can lead to a bad effect on our health. In 2008, the Government invested £33 million in what are known as handyperson services, with part of this money going to housing advice services. This was a welcome infusion of funding into a simple but necessary service for older and disabled home owners. Handypersons carry out small essential repairs, including carpentry, plumbing and roofing, as well as adaptations such as ramps, handrails and lever taps. They can also fit new locks, chains and key safes to enable safe access by health and social care professionals. This government funding sent a clear message to service commissioners that such schemes should increasingly be considered as part of the mainstream.
Whether our housing is in good repair is not enough if its design makes it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to continue to live in it as one grows older. There are significant costs to the health service and the social care budget when housing is no longer suitable for the changed needs of frail older people, who cannot be discharged from hospital or who have to go into residential care because of it. An important means of redressing such problems is the disabled facilities grant, which this Government have increased significantly since its inception; 2008 spending is projected to increase by nearly one third by 2011. The average grant of around £6,000 has made a real and significant difference to older peoples’ ability to do the simple but essential things like shower, access a loo or get upstairs.
Central government matched funding has historically provided a ring-fenced grant to all local housing authorities as a contribution towards the cost of DFGs, but I am afraid it still falls far short of being enough to meet demand in many areas. This will provide a major challenge for the next Government if they hope to reduce the cost of social care.
From April 2008 this matched-funding arrangement ended, and local authorities are now free to choose how much they put into local DFG budgets relative to their national funding allocation. Sadly, evidence is starting to emerge of wide local variation in adaptations: while some local authorities are continuing to match the national funding, others are either freezing or reducing their contribution. Long delays in the provision of an adaptation can easily result in major costs for health and social care authorities, such as home care services, residential care or hospital in-patient expenditure, which can be many times the adaptation cost. It makes investment sense to prioritise home adaptations, even if they are funded by transferring resources from the National Health Service. An ageing population in an ageing housing stock needs bold and joined-up measures or we will pay the costs even more expensively in another part of the welfare state.
However, in many cases existing housing cannot be adapted to the needs of old age. We have the historical problem of a housing stock that was not designed to make questions of age an irrelevance in the way that the report, Building a Society for All Ages, called for. Barrier-free design, which accommodates all the changes of a lifetime, is perfectly possible and deliverable. It makes absolute sense, and it is not “too expensive”, as developers are fond of saying. On the contrary, we cannot afford not to deliver it.
In Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods, the national strategy for an ageing society, this Government recognised that ageing,
“poses one of our greatest housing challenges”.
As a refreshing future-proof vision based on inclusiveness, the strategy noted the interdependence of housing, health and care. Public service agreements were put in place to set,
“housing and older people at the heart of local government services”.
Besides announcing the measures for repairs and adaptations I have already mentioned, the strategy undertook to ensure, via a mandatory part of the Code for Sustainable Homes, that,
“all public housing will be built to Lifetime Homes Standards by 2011”,
with an aspiration that all new housing will be built to these standards by 2013. This commitment was one of the highlights of recent government policy, a far-seeing and thoughtful contribution to the construction of a barrier-free society. Sadly, it has been reneged on with the announcement that Government will not make the Lifetime Homes standard a mandatory requirement of level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. In 2008-09 only 13.8 per cent of the National Affordable Housing Programme was built to Lifetime Homes standards. This sets a major challenge for the future.
In relation to specialised housing for older people, the recent report by the Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) represents a welcome legacy from the Lifetime Homes strategy, and sets an inspiring benchmark for what we should be doing. The Homes and Communities Agency, commissioned by the Department of Communities and Local Government in partnership with Department of Health, set up this innovation panel, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Best, to ask:
“What further reform is needed to ensure that new build specialised housing meets the needs and aspirations of the older people of the future?”.
It has documented a range of European good practice and has lifted our sights to what attractive living environments are possible in terms of design. I sincerely hope that this report’s strong recommendations will find an active and enduring response at every level of the next Government.
The HAPPI report included some very interesting examples of where older people themselves have, alone or assisted by public policy, developed collaborative communities to sustain themselves through old age. It recommends that the HCA,
“promotes self-help and mutual housing projects for older people, drawing on the successful co-housing models from continental Europe”.
Co-housing is the name given to small, intentional neighbourhoods where individuals and families choose to live as a group. They sometimes eat together and share activities, but each household has its own self-contained home.
I have spoken a number of times about co-housing, which represents a clear example of how thinking needs to change if local and central government, housing associations, builders and developers are to meet the challenge of our ageing society and the cost of social care. These intentional neighbourhoods are such an obvious solution to the loneliness and isolation that blight the lives of too many older people in our society. Co-housing, across generations or of older people together, has struggled to get a foothold in this country, yet, in offering a healthy, self-help alternative to isolation, it is surely a model that has much to contribute to modern living, especially for older people.
The Lifetime Homes strategy recommended co-housing as a creative response to lifestyle changes and the expectations of baby-boomers. The Homes and Communities Agency prospectus contains a commitment to fund co-housing schemes. However, the HCA needs to give much more active encouragement if local authorities and housing associations are to respond to the challenge of enabling older people to work together for independence. I should most definitely declare an interest here, as my partner is currently trying, with the Older Women’s Co-Housing group—known as OWCH—to gain the support of a north London borough in developing a self-managing and mutually supportive community on a brownfield site purchased for it by the Hanover Housing Group. This initiative, if the local authority can only make the necessary creative leap and think outside the box, will blaze a trail nationally. It will establish older people's co-housing as a model to meet not only older people’s wish for continued autonomy and independence in their own homes but also their need for an age-proof environment and for companionship.
Single living in old age is one of the greatest challenges of an ageing future, a challenge which all levels of government need to address and one which I have every hope that this Goverment will meet.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden on initiating this debate. It is a shame that so few noble Lords saw fit to contribute; I guess that there cannot be too many older people in your Lordships’ House.
Old age is the subject of many jokes, some of them funny, some quite unfunny—especially as one ages oneself. Old age is when you get out of breath playing chess. Old age is when you are cautioned by the doctor to take things more slowly, rather than by the police. George Burns said when he was 93, “At my age, you don’t even go out and buy green bananas”.
In truth, however, there has been in the past few decades a large-scale transformation of what old age means. We quite rightly now speak of “older people” rather than “pensioners”, which suggests a kind of welfare-dependent category. I do not like the term; I like even less the term “senior citizens”. “Older people” is the right term.
I think that it is generally agreed by those who specialise in the field that the ageing society should be seen not as a problem but as an opportunity. It is surely one of the great achievements of industrial civilisation to have prolonged life in such a way as to transform the demographic structure of our societies. When I used to write about these issues a few years ago, I used the term the “youthing society” rather than the “ageing society”—even though it is not especially grammatical—because older people now entertain the same diversity of lifestyles and want the same range of opportunities as do younger people. They should have those opportunities.
The Labour Government can boast of many achievements in improving the lives and, more important, the opportunities of older people. They include the minimum income guarantee, improvements in pension allowances and the winter fuel subsidy. However, the Government’s greatest and most significant achievement is in lowering rates of poverty among older people. Nearly 30 per cent of people over 60 living on pensions were in poverty in 1994-95. By 2007-08, that proportion had dropped to 18 per cent. In a recent commentary on this issue, looking back to the preceding Tory era, the journalist Julian Knight wrote:
“It was a national scandal that in the 1980s and 1990s, under Tory rule, we had pensioners dying because they couldn’t afford to heat and feed themselves properly. The plight got so bad one winter that a Danish charity sent over food parcels and blankets to some of our pensioners”.
I am pleased to say that the situation is radically different now. In the previous debate, on the economy, I mentioned that the Government have made a big impact in reducing poverty, and the biggest impact has been in reducing poverty among older people.
Of course, further progress is needed. The recession has seriously hit those living off investment income. I would welcome any comments that the Minister would like to make on that. Long-time care of the elderly, as we all know, is a very testing issue, about which intensive debate continues, and, as politicians like to say, there are no easy answers. Perhaps one of the most important issues is that we are still on a collision course between the affordability of pensions and the increased proportion of over-60s in the population. This is visible in all countries. The only way around it is to get and keep more over-60s in work and to recast that in opportunity terms as far as possible.
I will make three points about this, one of which continues the point made by my noble friend Baroness Turner. First, older people should have the right to work under exactly the same conditions as anyone else, determined only by competence. There should be, therefore, no compulsory age of retirement. I echo what my noble friend said about the default retirement age. It is not right, in my view, that employers in the UK can still force retirement at age 65. The struggle against that continues, led by Age Concern and other organisations. The Government have promised to review it, but I think that it should be scrapped. By the way, it was scrapped a long time ago in American universities, where there is no federal age of retirement. That has not had a disastrous impact on those universities. There are plenty of people of a certain age who are marvellous teachers and marvellous researchers; they should have the right to work in universities in this country, too.
If you abolish a formal age of retirement, does that inhibit the job chances of the young? No, it does not. You can see that if you look across other industrialised countries. In fact, the opposite is the case. Those countries that have a low functional or formal age of retirement, such as Spain, Italy or Greece, have by far the highest levels of youth unemployment. Therefore, that premise does not follow and it is not an objection to abolishing a formal age of retirement. I repeat: people should have the right to work at any age as long as they want to do so and demonstrate the capacity to do so in a competent way.
Secondly, we know that, in getting more people into work and dealing with the looming pensions crisis, an active labour market policy makes a big difference. We have examples of this from a range of countries. As usual, one or two of the Scandinavian countries seem to be in the forefront. In Finland, for example, only 37 per cent of over-55s—let alone over-60s or over-65s—were in work in 1997. This has now been upped to 57 per cent, at least by 2007, the year of the recession. That was achieved by bringing in a flexible retirement age between 63 and 68 and allowing people to go on beyond that age as they wish. It was based on providing a bonus for those who stay in work. It is worth mentioning that those affected who are now in work beyond what was the standard functional legal retirement age include a substantial proportion of disabled people and women. These are important categories of individuals who should have not just the right but the capability to work. An active government policy can surely help with that.
Thirdly, and finally, we should promote a balanced idea of retirement and work. Retirement was a concept introduced by the Bismarckian welfare state and became seen as a sort of right and a defining principle of the good life. However, it is not necessarily a defining principle of the good life, as many people discover when they retire. There is no doubt that retirement can bring many benefits and generate many freedoms, especially if one retires from an onerous physical job, for example. But it also creates many problems, which are well known. They can include aimlessness, a feeling of lack of worth and a loss of sense of value to the wider society. If you have a rigid notion of retirement, you tend to produce ghettos for old age, separating off older people from younger people.
In conclusion, this is something that we should fight strongly to avoid. There should be social justice between the generations. There should be an effective contract between the generations. Older people who work are more often in contact with younger people. It makes sense to promote intergenerational social justice as an important aspect of social justice and inequality. Just to show that I am not party political, some of these interesting ideas, problems and issues around the relationship between the generations are discussed in David Willetts’s book, which is a very interesting contribution to this overall subject.
My Lords, I congratulate my long-standing and noble friend Lady Turner on moving this Motion about ageing. Like other noble Lords, I am both qualified and experienced to speak in this debate. She is right to raise this matter. In this country, 8.2 million people are aged over 65 and, on average, men expect to live until 82 while women have a life expectancy of 85. Thanks to the advantages of medical science, not only can we live longer but we can enjoy more active and healthier lives—the kind of lives that my noble friend Lord Giddens described.
Without doubt, ageing will move up the political agenda. I was very interested that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke about minorities looking after their older people. Of course, one of the largest and finest old people’s homes in this country is Nightingale House, which is of course run by the Jewish community.
As some noble Lords know, I visit Florida. Because many Americans retire there, it is possible to have a glimpse of how life might be organised with an ageing population. The average age of Palm Beach County is 67. It is a population with a disposable income, so many activities and events—concerts, theatres, ballet, recitals and talks—start at three o’clock in the afternoon so that people can go home in daylight. There is ample accommodation designed for older people in various states of health. Because they are less mobile and there is very little public transport, transport is provided to shopping and medical centres, banks and other places. Indeed, there is co-housing, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, spoke. The community has adapted to people’s needs, so that there is no stigma and no inconvenience to others attached to being elderly and frail. Probably the most popular adaptation is the “early bird”. No, that is not some easily digested chicken; it is an early meal. Virtually every restaurant offers meals between 4.30 and 6 pm at a very modest price, so all the elderly people eat out. Rumour has it that, when they sit down, they look at each other, they sigh and they say things like, “Goodness gracious”, “Dear me” and “My goodness”. When there is a pause, somebody says, “Well, now we’ve discussed the children, let’s get on with eating”.
One of the reasons why I know about this is that my sister retired there and she suffers from dementia—the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke about this. After 50 years of living in New York, she went to Florida, where she can live easily and well with dementia, although that is because she has private insurance. For those without private insurance, life is very different and very difficult. I hope that the new healthcare law in America will change that. Without insurance, people in America who require social care depend entirely on friends, family or charity. Even with insurance, a big hurdle is the argument with the insurance company over whether you are covered. That is why we should value what we have here—not only the care, but also the pensions, the credits, the winter fuel allowances, the free travel, the free television and all the other things that my noble friend Lady Turner told us about.
I know that the social care Bill has become a bit of a political minefield and, yes, there is uncertainty between local councils, primary care trusts and social care organisations. However, we do have care in the community. If somebody thinks that their spouse or parent is becoming frail or is in the early stages of difficulties with memory or reasoning, they can get help.
Of course things can be improved, but the Government seem to be taking ageing seriously. When preparing for this debate, I noted the report issued by the Public Accounts Committee on 16 March about the five-year dementia strategy. Yes, it spoke of unacceptable regional variations, but it also spoke of strong leadership. However, it also referred to the inappropriate and excessive prescribing of antipsychotic drugs. That is because of staff issues in care homes and it is a worry. Will the Minister tell us how the Government are going to tackle this?
What should the policy be towards ageing? Government policies should be directed towards what I call “successful ageing”. Help the Aged and Age Concern have their views and I am sure that they have carried out extensive qualitative and quantitative research. However, may I give your Lordships my guide to successful ageing? It is my guide to accepting that you have reached a later stage of life—my qualifications for speaking in this debate. The key is to move away from stress-centred activities—largely economic—and carry out human-centred activities. Deal with people, but on your own terms.
I try to do five things, ironically inspired by the New Economics Foundation. First, be active. I cycle a lot and, yes, I now have a small electric motor on my bike to help me up those steep hills. Secondly, I try to connect with people every day—friends, colleagues and family. Your Lordships’ House is invaluable for this. It is also invaluable to my third task, which is to make an effort to take note of and learn new things, unusual things and ideas, not to be left behind. I try to keep mentally active by trying something new or rediscovering something old. Finally, I try to look outwards—look outwards by giving. I try to give the benefit of my experience or I help a person, an organisation or a charity with encouragement or with money. Of course I keep an eye on my pension and on my diet, but by now there is not much I can do about all of that. This is what works for me and I would think works for most of us. It seems to me that, if government policies are directed towards successful ageing, by facilitating the activities that I have described, those policies will be right.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for introducing this debate—the last party debate of this Parliament, I believe. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for her work over many years, seeking to raise matters in this House to make the lives not just of older people but of working people of all ages as good as possible. She is an example to us all.
This has been a short but interesting debate. There has perhaps been a slight hint of electioneering, but not as much as I thought there might be. By concentrating on measures that have been taken to assist older people and the challenges that these pose for the future, the noble Baroness has focused on a key issue. I am tempted to use the word “battleground”, but that would send a rather undignified message.
Politicians who are determined to deny any good policies to their political rivals in government do themselves no favours. I am happy to acknowledge that this Government have certainly made life better for many older people in several respects, although other opportunities have been missed. The phrase “older people” sounds a bit vague, although it sounds better than “pensioners”. It is difficult to know at what age this stage starts.
My noble friend Lord Dholakia made a powerful contribution about the needs of what we now call the BME community. As he said, many of those who originally came to this country after the war now fall into the age range that we are talking about. I hope that the Government heed what he says about support for organisations and BME elders who are trying to address the needs of this older cohort.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, concentrated on housing, which, we should remember, is always the issue that people write most to their MPs about. It is often hived off into specialised ghetto subjects, but it should be in the mainstream. She has brought an important element into this debate.
I shall be referring mostly to pensioners in my comments, and shall start with pensioners themselves before turning to the retirement age. I shall also touch on long-term care for the elderly, winter fuel payments and bus passes.
There is no question but that pension credit, which started only in 2003, has given many poor pensioners more money in their pockets. A more cynical way of looking at this is that pension credits are a more complicated way of giving pensioners back what would be rightfully theirs if pensions had kept with the cost of living. It is reckoned that as many as 1.7 million pensioners do not claim pension credits, although they would be eligible to do so. This was mentioned particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. Whether that is through ignorance or because they are unwilling to go through the means-testing process is unclear.
Age UK reckons that 18 per cent of pensioners live below the Government’s poverty line. In other words, they have less than 60 per cent of median income—after housing costs. The Minister will understand that I had to get those three little words in. The situation is worse in isolated rural areas, where take-up is significantly lower. One reason might be the lack of social housing in many rural areas, so that pensioners are not in touch with the benefits system.
There is also the fact that many pensioners living in rural areas are often fiercely independent and may not want to fill in complicated forms for means testing. Whatever the problem, this lack of take-up, whether in town or country, must be urgently addressed as the basic state pension is not generous—something I shall come back to in a moment. It also has implications for cold weather payments because those receiving pension credit qualify automatically.
Another worrying fact about pension credit is that in 2008-09, 36 per cent of all pension credit cases were incorrect. That is over 900,000 cases: 581,000 were overpaid and 401,000 were underpaid, due to a combination of fraud, official error and customer error. Does the Minister agree that these figures are unacceptable?
I must mention here the scheme for women who are approaching retirement to buy back extra years of national insurance payments that they missed after giving up work to raise families. This was a welcome addition to the last Pensions Act after a long campaign spearheaded by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. However, that small step for some women does not do anything for those who retired just before this measure was introduced, those who have fewer than 20 years of national insurance contributions, or those who cannot afford any “buy-back”. Nor does it do anything for those single pensioners with no other source of income who have to rely on pension credit after means-testing.
Pensions have fallen so far behind wages because, of course, of the breaking of the link with earnings by the Conservative Government back in the 1980s, which has not yet been restored. I know that both the Government and the official Opposition have said that they will restore the link with earnings, but it is not at all clear when this will be. My party is pledged to restore immediately the link between the basic state pension and earnings, using increases in average earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent—whichever is higher—to determine the increase in the state pension. We would also scrap the rules that compel people to buy an annuity for personal pensions when they reach the age of 75. In the spirit of the debate, I should also mention the Government's welcome announcement in last year's Budget that grandparents of working age who are looking after their grandchildren for more than 20 hours a week will qualify for national insurance credits towards the basic state pension from next year.
Our tax plans will give older people who pay income tax more money in their pockets. We would make sure that no one pays tax on the first £10,000 of their income, including pensioners who pay tax. Paying tax on modest pensions is something that many pensioners resent.
On the retirement age, I note that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget speech yesterday that the Government were going to “look at” the national default retirement age of 65; the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned this, and the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, spoke about it a great deal. It is not, of course, a new announcement. They have already said that they were going to review it. I was going to ask the Minister whether that review has taken place, but it has obviously not yet done so.
My party would scrap the default retirement age, with workers and employers having to agree that, for an employee to continue working after the age of 65, it is to their mutual advantage. A recent survey to assess the impact of the current rules on older workers found that around 100,000 people were forced to retire at or after 65 last year. and that employers of four in 10 employees over 60 use forced retirement. The number of people forced to retire last year is far higher than even the highest estimate at the time when the default retirement age was introduced. It seems that older workers are being forced out of the workforce during the recession as a cheap alternative to redundancy, some in their late 50s. These forced retirees find it almost impossible to re-enter the workplace at this age, and are left dependent on the state. The majority of workers over 50, both women and men, in fact want to continue working beyond state pension age, which is something that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, also mentioned.
Some firms, such as B&Q, have made a virtue of their willingness to keep on older employees. This is welcome and we hope it can be extended, with older workers being offered part-time and flexible working. The announcement about working tax credit for older workers is welcome. It has long been a puzzle to me why the Government can legislate for increasing the pension age in the future on the one hand, while not doing anything about the national default retirement age on the other. It is a thoroughly inconsistent position to take.
Turning now to social care, this House has been grappling with the Personal Care at Home Bill, so the policy for long-term care of the elderly is in the forefront of our minds at the moment. The Government’s Green Paper on the subject, published recently, set out options. They were consulting on those options when they suddenly decided to pre-empt matters with the Personal Care at Home Bill, which was heavily amended last week in this House. We believe that the only way forward is for a cross-party commission, like the Turner commission on pensions, to take place and report within the year to arrive at a consensus on this vital subject. The uncertainty surrounding the future of long-term care of the elderly must surely be resolved as a matter of great urgency.
While on the subject of long-term care for the elderly, there is a growing view that the status of carers needs to be strengthened and put on a much higher footing. There should be a more structured career path, with recognised qualifications for carers, so that Britain is ready for whatever plans are put in place for the future.
The winter fuel payment was brought in for pensioners by the Labour Government in 1997. It is now payable to all those aged over 60, with more for those aged over 80. My party has just announced that we would raise the age at which older people receive the winter fuel payment to 65 immediately to fund extending those payments to disabled people on disability living allowance, who have higher fuel costs in view of their impaired mobility. However, the Government cannot be responsible for the weather. The very cold weather that we have experienced has left many pensioners heavily out of pocket, even with the winter fuel payment, because of higher fuel prices. The Government have tried to urge fuel companies to be more socially responsible in their charging policies, but to no avail. We would mandate energy companies to reverse the charging regime so that the first units of energy consumed are at the lowest price. This will reward those who use less energy and encourage investment in energy efficiency. We would also tackle the problem of who is eligible for a social tariff by making energy companies introduce mandatory social tariffs that are lower than their other prices to protect vulnerable people on means-tested benefit from higher fuel costs.
Many pensioners found that the best of keeping warm this winter was to travel on buses. The free bus pass scheme for off-peak travel for pensioners and disabled people has been one of the Government’s most popular initiatives, although some local councils in major tourist destinations have found that the scheme is proving almost too popular and local council tax payers are having to subsidise it. However, I hope an incoming Government will not have second thoughts and will keep the scheme going.
There are other matters on each side of the Government’s balance sheet. It is a good thing that older people are eligible for more health checks than before, so that they can keep fit and healthy for longer. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, spoke about this. Here, I urge the Government to pay more attention to recognising the need for psychiatric services for older people. Depression can hit people at any age and should not be ignored just because a person is retired. If health checks are a good thing, a bad thing is that many of the adult education classes that older people enjoyed in the afternoons or early evenings are no longer available, as I believe they are in Florida. Engaging the brain is perhaps the best way of keeping healthy, as most of us here find. The closure of many post offices, which older people rely on, in both urban and rural areas is unwelcome. I hope that the recent announcement on the extension of banking services offered through the Post Office might stem the flood of closures.
Talking of closures, I turn, in ending, not from the sublime to the ridiculous but from financial practicality to an everyday practicality. We need more public conveniences in towns all over the country. I know the lack of public loos cannot be laid explicitly at the Government’s door, but they could spearhead a campaign to ensure that there are enough of them.
I thank the noble Baroness for this debate and look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, despite all the sound and fury on measures for older people, the sad fact is that on the central measure of pensioner poverty used by this Government—not the same measure used by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, earlier—there has been no reduction in numbers at all. Let me provide the latest figures from the Households Below Average Income report, which takes us up to 2007-08. That was before any impact from the financial crisis this Government have plunged us into. These figures show that the number of pensioners on below 60 per cent of median income was 2.5 million. That is exactly the same figure as in 1997-98. In percentage terms the figures are better by a smidgen, and I define a smidgen as being down from 25 per cent to 23 per cent. I am using the before-housing figure and the relative, not absolute, performance figure in line with the figures that the Government cleaved to in the Child Poverty Bill which we have just finished debating.
Some one in five pensioners lives in poverty. We have some of the poorest pensioners in Europe, with only pensioners in Bulgaria, Latvia, Cyprus, and Estonia more likely to fall into poverty. The income of the poorest 20 per cent of households has been falling for the past three years and is now £7 a week lower in real terms that in 2004-05. At the same time, fuel poverty has quadrupled among pensioners. The official figures for 2007 show 1.5 million households in England containing someone over 60 in fuel poverty. Using the Government’s own projections for how fuel poverty has increased since 2007, it is estimated that there are as many as 2.4 million such households today—almost one pensioner household in every three. Fuel poverty is such an important issue because it is so closely linked to cold-weather deaths. In the winter just gone there were no fewer than 36,700 deaths in England and Wales. That is an increase of 49 per cent on the previous winter. Of course, it was an unusually severe winter. Nevertheless, that figure is simply not acceptable. These figures are for those who still have their own home. It is estimated that around 48,000 elderly people currently in residential care have had to sell their home to pay care fees.
The overarching concern on pensioner poverty is that this disappointing performance took place in a booming economy at a time when the number of pensioners rose by a modest amount from 10 million to a little over 11 million. We are now facing a much more difficult economic period and the number of pensioners is scheduled to rise to nearly 15 million by 2030, according to DWP forecasts. Before I go into some of the specific problem areas, I would like to take this opportunity to nail some of the misinformation about Conservative plans for older people. I have been genuinely shocked to learn about some of the things that desperate Labour candidates have been saying and publishing about our plans in this area. Jon Trickett, MP for Hemsworth, has claimed that pensioners would lose their winter fuel allowance or free TV licence under the Conservatives. Phyllis Starkey in Milton Keynes South West has claimed that pensioners would lose free bus fares under a Conservative Government. Let me state unequivocally that the Conservatives would not cut the winter fuel allowance, would not cut free bus travel, would not cut the free television licence, and would not cut pensions or pension credit. These statements by Labour are quite simply lies. I am amazed that the Prime Minister has not done more to set the record straight and keep his candidates in line. I would appreciate a statement today from the Minister to that effect.
Let me turn to the Government’s track record. Here I shall concentrate on outcomes, not inputs. One of the central problems of Labour’s period in government is that it has confused energetic initiative-itis with performance. It has poured money into many programmes, but this is nothing to be proud of if the outcomes are inadequate. While the Minister may boast of this programme and that spending, I will concentrate on the underlying results. Some of them are pretty unpleasant.
Our hospitals are dangerous places. The older people are, the more vulnerable they are to catching infections while in them. It has been reported that a quarter of health trusts failed to meet standards over hospital infections while five were warned over blood-spattered walls and mouldy instruments. What are the Government doing to clean up Britain’s wards since their previous programmes obviously are not working?
There is too much malnutrition. A recent survey by the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition found that 90,000 of the nation’s malnourished people resided in hospital, and, even more concerning, 150,000 resided in care homes. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of the nutrition action plan of 2007 to end malnutrition in hospitals?
Provision for dementia has been falling, despite the increasing numbers. There are now 821,000 dementia sufferers in the country. The number of care homes able to care for sufferers has fallen by 9 per cent since 2004 and the number of places has reduced by nearly 6 per cent. Can the Minister give an indication of when the programme of memory clinics, outlined in the dementia strategy, will be fully rolled out? Upwards of 120,000 people are being inappropriately treated with anti-psychotic drugs designed for those with schizophrenia, according to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia. What action will the Government take to stop this serious misuse of pharmaceuticals in dementia care? Can the Minister also tell the House what the Government are doing to ensure that the Care Quality Commission’s regulation is working in the best interests of care home residents?
There has been no granting of freedom to people to look after themselves and make their own decisions. When will the Government end the effective obligation to buy an annuity at the age of 75? Labour plays fast and loose with disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Does the Minister agree that the current speculation over the fate of attendance allowance, disability living allowance and other disability benefits in the Green Paper is causing great anxiety among those who rely on this money to get by? We the Conservatives will protect disability living allowance for the over-65s and attendance allowance for disabled pensioners to give them the chance to have independent lives with the freedom to tailor their care to their needs.
The Government have turned one of the best private pension systems in the world into one of the worst. I will not dwell on the sad sequence of events that has brought us to this pass—initiated by the £100 billion tax raid on dividends. Up to £5 billion of means-tested benefits that should rightly go to older people in Great Britain are unclaimed each year. Many pensioners simply cannot understand the Government’s complex system. What are the Government doing to solve this unacceptable situation? To coin a phrase, we cannot go on like this.
The noble Lord produces a doom-laden account, but does he accept the idea that ageing is an opportunity, that having an ageing society is an achievement and that we must support opportunities and have a newer and much more positive view of what ageing means? If so, what is Tory policy on those issues?
I join the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, in congratulating David Willetts on his book The Pinch, which goes through many of these issues in great detail. The most interesting facts in that book are that, despite the ageing of the population and the assumption that that means that people are more ill, in practice the period for which people are unhealthy has been contracting even as people have been getting older. I quote the facts, which he quoted, to the noble Lord. I welcome many of those trends, but they are general trends right across the western world, so one can hardly congratulate a particular Government on them.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on her steadfast support for securing justice for older people in particular. She ranged comprehensively over issues associated with work, pensions, retirement and care. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that she detected only a slight hint of electioneering—I think that that was before the previous contribution—and we have learnt one or two acronyms, such as OWCH and HAPPI, this afternoon, which I will come on to.
Tackling pensioner poverty and improving financial security for older people was a key priority for this Government on coming to office, and remains a key priority today. The Government’s strategy since 1997 has been to target support at those who need it most through measures such as pension credit. It is an approach that has delivered significant progress; 900,000 fewer pensioners are now living in relative poverty than in 1998-99 after housing costs, and pensioners today are less likely to live in relative poverty than the population as a whole. As my noble friend and others have mentioned, the Government have introduced winter fuel payments, free off-peak bus travel, free TV licences for those over 75, free eye tests and free swimming. All these things make a real difference to the lives of millions of older people in this country every day.
This Government have also recognised the importance of providing additional support to pensioners when they needed it most. During the recent downturn, this included: increasing winter fuel and cold weather payments; a £60 payment alongside the Christmas bonus; and, from April last year, an above-indexation increase in the pension credit guarantee and a 5 per cent increase in the basic state pension.
The Government have continued to provide additional support. From October last year, ISA limits for those over 50 were increased to £10,200. From November, the capital disregard in pension credit, as well as housing benefit and council tax benefit, was increased from £6,000 to £10,000. This means that 88 per cent of pension credit recipients will have all their capital ignored when their entitlement to means-tested benefits is calculated.
This year, pensioners will again receive an additional payment alongside the winter fuel payment, making their winter fuel payment worth £400 for the over-80s and £250 for those aged 60 to 79, and those on pension credit will benefit from increased cold-weather payments, which will increase £8.50 to £25. From April this year, pensioners will benefit from above-indexation increases in the basic state pension and the pension credit guarantee. The Chancellor has also confirmed that the additional payment on top of the winter fuel payment will be retained next year.
Today, we also have a pension protection regime which ensures that people can have confidence to save for their future. Thanks to the safety net provided by the Pension Protection Fund and the Financial Assistance Scheme, people need no longer lose their pension when their employer becomes insolvent. As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, we have made much progress, but, like my noble friend, the Government recognise that there is more to do. However, significant progress has been made over the past decade in tackling pensioner poverty.
Let me remind noble Lords that in 1997, the poorest pensioners, who lived on income support, lived on £69 a week, which is £98 in today’s prices. Today, pension credit means that no one aged 60 or over needs to live on less than £130 a week or £198.45 for couples. This represents an increase in income of almost a third in real terms, and many of those on pension credit will be entitled to receive additional support through housing benefit and council tax benefit.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, referred to our comparative position in Europe on pensions. I remind him that it is misleading to focus on the state pension alone because the recent OECD report shows that replacement rate for the average earner taking account of private pension income, an important source of income for UK pensioners, rises to 70 per cent, which is well above the OECD average. He also referred to issues around fuel poverty. I remind noble Lords that in the winter of 1997-98, less than £60 million per year was spent on helping pensioners to meet their fuel bills. We now spend £2.7 billion each year on winter fuel payments. This year, the Government will run an energy rebate scheme that will provide up to 250,000 of the poorest pensioner households with an £80 rebate on their electricity bills in 2010. I believe the Government have a good record on tackling fuel poverty.
Noble Lords will be aware that we are living through an enormous demographic change with UK life expectancy continuing to grow. In 2007, for the first time in history, there were more pensioners than children in the UK. Of course people living longer is a cause for celebration. It is a testament to improvements in healthcare and occupational safety and in delivering the modern welfare state. Nevertheless, it will reshape our society, and we must adapt to make the most of it.
The Government are putting in place the foundations which will help us rise to this challenge. Our response was published in Building a Society for All Ages, our strategy for an ageing society, and is two-fold. It is to help those people in later life and to help people prepare more effectively for their later life. That will not by itself ward off the spectres of long-term sickness and isolation, which is why we have taken measures across the whole of the Government to help people prepare for their longer lives. To ensure that people can find the information that they need, we have introduced “Planning Your Future—Get Set for Retirement” as part of DirectGov. That brings together information about areas such as money, health, careers and home, to help people in mid-life plan ahead for a better later life. It will provide a link to key services such as the NHS mid-life check, which supports people to live healthier lives.
However, we know that preparing for an ageing society is not just about the people who will get old tomorrow. It is also about people who are older today. I have already shared with noble Lords our achievements in combating pensioner poverty, and in supporting pensioners during the recession. A number of noble Lords touched on the default retirement age. Across government, I believe that by 1 April every department should have made it clear that it will disregard the current default retirement age. Beyond that, we also expect businesses to play a role—to recognise ageing in their employment policies. That is why we have brought forward the review of the default retirement age to 2010, and last year called for evidence on retirement ages to be submitted by the beginning of February this year. We are assessing that evidence, along with major research we have commissioned, and are developing options for the future of the default retirement age. Those will include raising the age, removing it, or reforming the legislative framework to strengthen the position of the employee. The evidence examined to date, along with the views of stakeholders, suggests that a default retirement age of 65 is not the best way forward so we will not include that as an option in the consultation.
The issue is not just about older people as employees, however. It is also about older people as a growing proportion of consumers. That is why we are working with institutions such as the Royal College of Art, to support inclusive design.
In terms of extending working lives, we are committed to increasing employment opportunities for older people. My noble friend Lady Turner was particularly focused on that. We need to do it to meet their needs, and to maintain a productive economy and a sustainable pension and benefit system in the light of an ageing population. I remind noble Lords that the number of people in employment aged 50 to state pension age has gone up from 65 per cent in 1997 to 71.3 per cent in 2009, with almost 1.4 million people now working past state pension age. The Chancellor announced in the Budget that, from April 2011, those over 60 will be able to access working tax credits if they work 16 hours or more a week, rather than the 30 hours that is the current arrangement; noble Lords were pleased about that, which pleased me.
While doing all that, we recognise that age discrimination is one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination, and it is right that the Government legislate to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of age in the provision of goods and services. Age discrimination is no more acceptable than any other form of discrimination. It is a success that people are living longer, but it is important that their later life is healthy. That is why the Department of Health launched in 2009 the prevention package for older people. That will help to promote independence by focusing on what can keep people well and alive.
We also know that local services are very important for older people. That is why our Good Place to Grow Older programme will help local authorities to improve their services in a way adapted to the needs of their local community, and embed what we have already learnt. That also means including older people in the design and delivery of services, because older people know best what works for them.
My noble friend Lord Haskel talked about the importance of physical activity towards people staying healthy. He looks a sprightly older person himself, if I may say so, and seems to have his life very much together from what we heard. He is right about the benefits of being active. Older people can extend the number of years that they remain free from disease and help to maintain their independence and quality of life. However, there is some way to go: only 20 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women aged between 65 and 74 meet the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation for physical activity. We are committed to helping to increase these levels of activity for the entire population, including older people. We have invested £140 million over three years to allow those under the age of 16 and those over 60 to swim for free.
The ageing population means that more older people are living in their own homes, and this number will continue to rise. The right homes and neighbourhoods can prevent people needing care and can support people to live more independently at home, rather than requiring residential or hospital care. That is why, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Wilkins, we published Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods. This has seen the introduction of services providing support to people so that they can live independently in their own homes.
Nevertheless, with an ageing population, more older and disabled people will need care and support and, without radical reform, we know that the current social care system will be unsustainable in the future. We are fully committed to building cross-party consensus to develop a new funding and delivery system for care and support. This will help us to ensure that all older and disabled people are able to live independently, with dignity and with the maximum quality of life.
As we have heard, we have also introduced reforms to improve the way that we support older people with care needs. As noble Lords are aware, we are working to put in place legislation that will provide personal care in the home free of charge to 280,000 people with the highest needs and provide re-ablement support to another 130,000. In our Green Paper, Shaping the Future of Care Together, we set out our vision to build a national care service that is fair, simple and affordable for all adults in England.
Therefore, we are committed to reforming the care and support system. We have undertaken a consultation and will feed that into the White Paper. People should expect prevention services, a national assessment of care and support needs, a joined-up service, information and advice, personalised care and support, and fair funding for a national care service.
My noble friend Lady Turner referred to the role of women and how they are dealt with under the state pension system. As I have outlined, the Government are taking forward radical reform of the pension system which will narrow the pension gender gap, deliver fair outcomes to women and carers, and significantly improve women’s state pension coverage.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made a very interesting and pertinent contribution. I should like to spend more time reading the record of his speech, but I recognise much of what he described from my own experience in Luton, which has a very diverse community. The ageing population is a challenge for all society, and individuals, families, businesses and government, as well as communities, will be required to address it. However, we recognise the challenges that BME communities face, and it is important that we bear these in mind in the delivery of our public services. During our consultation on our recent ageing society strategy, we held specific events to ensure that the voices of BME communities were heard, although we recognise that that has not always been the case.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Turner and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, talked about benefit take-up. We are committed to ensuring that pensioners receive the support to which they are entitled, and that is why we have already simplified the claim process. Since November 2008, it has been possible to make claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit alongside pension credit in a single phone call. We are rolling out a targeted regional marketing campaign across selected regions which is designed to engage with the local pensioner population using channels of communication and organisations that they are likely to be familiar with—for example, Mecca Bingo, voluntary organisations and so on. We are conducting around 13,000 home visits a week for vulnerable customers to ensure that they are receiving all the benefits and services to which they are entitled. We are planning to run a pilot this year to look at ways of making better use of the data that we hold on individuals from both our own administrative records and those of HMRC to see whether we can find an approach that improves take-up of pension credit in particular.
My noble friend Lady Wilkins made a very powerful contribution concerning housing, stressing how important it is to older people. I very much agree with her. Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods sets out our national strategy. The measures include, as she said, the expansion of the Handyperson service, whose success was celebrated yesterday with the first national conference; maintaining independence by adapting homes as people grow older; and £460 million allocated over three years to enable more people to adapt their homes by, for example, installing stairlifts, walk-in showers and wider doors.
The DCLG is funding FirstStop, a new advice and information service for older people, their families and their carers. Specifically in relation to our commitment to lifetime homes, the Government remain committed to ensuring that the new housing responds appropriately to the needs of older and disabled people, but this must be done in a proportionate way that balances those needs with the need to increase housing supply overall. My noble friend referred to the Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation, and we agree with many of the findings of the HAPPI panel, but in the current economic climate we have to ensure that the measures we take forward are proportionate and deliver best value for money.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, raised issues around the use of anti-psychotic drugs and dementia, as did my noble friend Lord Haskel. The review of anti-psychotics which the Government commissioned has highlighted the need to improve the quality of care-home care. We have appointed Professor Alistair Burns as the new national clinical director for dementia, and he will be responsible for driving these changes, reducing the use of anti-psychotic drugs for people with dementia, thus improving the quality of life for people with dementia in care homes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to grandparents and to the work that is going on there. To complement our Budget 2009 pledge to introduce in 2011 national insurance credits for grandparents providing childcare, the Government have also announced, in the Green Paper Support for all: the families and relationships, a new service designed specifically for grandparents, more support for children’s centres, and a commitment to improve the information available about legal and other options after parents separate.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, posed several questions, and he supported the abolition of annuitisation at the age of 75, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. I am glad to say that we are simply apart on that issue, but I remind noble Lords that only about 5 per cent of people currently annuitise after the age of 70. This is something which, if at all, would only be of benefit to a small fraction of the population, and those with bigger pension pots.
The noble Lord made reference to what he termed the Chancellor’s tax raid. I thought that we had put that one to bed and dealt with it a number of years ago. It seems to just keep cropping up. It is to do, as the noble Lord is probably aware, with the restructuring of the corporation tax system. The abolition of payable tax credits removed a distortion in the tax system that had encouraged companies to pay out their profits as dividends, rather than retain them for reinvestment in the business. The key drivers of the changing difficulties for defined benefit provision, as I think everyone now recognises, are what is happening with longevity and demographics, and with perhaps more realistic expectations of stock market returns. Those two factors did more than anything else, including, if I may say so, some of the pension holidays that were driven by legislation that we inherited, which did not help.
The noble Lord raised issues around malnutrition strategy. I will write to him on that. In terms of dementia funding, we are investing record sums, rising to £173 million a year over the next three years, in psychological therapies: £33 million in 2008-09, £103 million last year and £173 million for the year we are just about to enter. Within that programme we have asked PCTs to look at the particular needs of older people who develop anxiety and depression alongside a long-term condition, and at the demands of caring for a loved one in failing health.
The clock is moving on. I have tried to deal with as many points as I can. I will look at the record and write further if that is appropriate. The Government are making and will continue to make important changes to help people prepare for later life and be financially secure, independent, healthy and active. However, as I have already mentioned, this is not a job which can be done by government alone. It has to be done by individuals, businesses, public services and communities. If we are to build a society for all ages, all of society must help us to build it. I thank my noble friend for organising this debate.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has participated in this fantastic debate. I have been amazed at the degree of expertise and knowledge displayed by so many contributors—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who made a remarkable reference to minorities and issues that I had not even thought about. I thank him for that. I will make one exception, however. One of my colleagues described the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, as somewhat doom-laden; I, too, think that it was doom-laden.
I am grateful for the way in which the Minister dealt with most of the issues. In particular, he referred to the position that the Government are now in with their strategy for an ageing society. It is a strategy in which we all have to participate. It is a matter not only for government but for everyone; we all have to revise our attitudes towards the employment, work and general lifestyles of older people. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister when he says that age discrimination is no more acceptable than any other form of discrimination. That is exactly my view. I look forward to reading the debate, which will be well worth study for the future. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.