Friday December 14th. 2.47 pm
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, I begin, as others have done, by paying tribute to the most revered Primate, not simply for choosing this important topic for debate here in your Lordships’ House today but also to say how grateful many of us are—perhaps especially those of us who are not Anglicans—for the spiritual leadership that he has provided during his time at Canterbury. I hope that, as he returns to academic life, he will continue to challenge us—as he has done again today—to think beyond our narrow material concerns and to be an apostle of faith and reason.
Many of us were particularly moved by the speech that followed that of the most reverend Primate when we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. That brought to mind that when I was a young Member of another place there was a proposal to build a new geriatric unit in the heart of Liverpool. I was very concerned when I saw where it was to be situated and wrote to the Department of Health to ask whether a Minister could come and see the location. I received a reply that the Minister in the House of Lords—the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington—would come to Liverpool to see the site. That was not quite what I had had in mind at first, but when I met the noble Baroness I immediately revised my views. I took her to the place where they wanted to build a new geriatric unit and pointed out what people in that unit would see: they would look over the neighbouring cemetery in Smithdown Road. In a good example to anyone aspiring to ministerial office, the noble Baroness at this point picked up the plans and tore them up, telling the officials, “It will be over my dead body”. I am glad to say that, all these years later, the noble Baroness has lost none of her mettle. I would not want to be an official on the receiving end of a visitation by her, even at this time.
I was most grateful that the most reverend Primate amusingly drew a line at the age of 62, a threshold which, in my case, is not far off. Having arrived at Westminster in 1979, as the then baby of the House, in another place, I am conscious that it would be something of an understatement to say that I am preaching to the converted by giving a speech in a debate on the place and contribution of older people in society in your Lordships’ House, but I have always been reassured by something that Robert Kennedy once said about age and youth. He said that youth is,
“not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination”.
A great hero of mine is William Ewart Gladstone, who was born in the city of Liverpool. He became Prime Minister two years before the most reverend Primate’s threshold. He went on to be Prime Minister three more times and finally resigned from office at the age of 84, so there may be hope for a number of Members of your Lordships’ House if they have aspirations in that direction.
On arriving in your Lordships’ House in 1997—I was thinking about this as the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, spoke to us earlier—I was struck by the wisdom and experience of so many who participated in the debates here. I got to know the late Lord Longford at that time and I recall wonderful conversations as he talked about his experiences during the interwar years and Cabinet meetings that he had attended with great figures from the past. It was sometimes like talking to the pharaohs when you talked to him. He was an active participant in your Lordships’ House right up until he died at the age of 95. That is a salutary lesson to all those who belittle the contribution that people are able to make right until the end of their lives.
By contrast, our attitude to older people has become a national disgrace. Increasingly, we tend to regard older people as an unwanted burden. The time when families looked after one another, lived close to each other and gave support when needed is long gone. Age and wisdom are no longer generally revered. In its place, we have a media-driven cult of worshipping youth, casting the elderly aside and sending them off out of sight and out of mind to nursing or residential homes where, increasingly, the level of care is deplorable.
I was struck by the speech of my noble friend Lady Masham. It brought to mind a young woman who came to Liverpool to study geriatric care some years ago. She came from west Africa. After six months, she said to me: “David, I am returning to my homeland. I am not going to bother finishing my studies because I do not believe you have anything to teach us about respect or care for the elderly in this country”. That also brought to mind the story about Mother Teresa, who once asked why residents at a home that she visited were all sitting facing the door. She was told: “It is in the hope that someone will visit them”. Mother Teresa said that the tragedy of loneliness, a point made by my noble friend Lord Crisp, and a sense of being unloved, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, is the “most terrible poverty”. That came from someone who ministered to the poor in the city of Calcutta.
It is said that in Britain 1 million people do not see a friend or neighbour during the course of an average week. What does that say about the rest of us? What does it say about our sharp-elbowed, uncaring society when an 80 year-old Alzheimer’s sufferer was beaten repeatedly by a male member of staff at a residential care home in Kentish Town last year; or that a disabled grandmother in Wakefield recently said that she was afraid to return to hospital after what her family described as “absolutely atrocious” care; or the 89 year-old woman exposed to “sickening” mistreatment in a residential care home in Pontefract? As your Lordships know, the list goes on.
Nearly half a million people over the age of 65 are now living in residential care homes, but as the number of older people increases, so the elderly are struggling to find and pay for care to help with everyday needs. Care costs, whether residential or in a person’s home, have risen dramatically in recent years, and successive British Governments have spent less on this provision than almost any other country in Europe. A survey by the Saga Group last year found that Italy and France spent twice as much on their pensioners as we do in the United Kingdom and both those countries have the longest life expectancy for women in Europe. Britain came 17th out of the 20 major European countries surveyed—behind not only Germany but former communist countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.
Each year an estimated 40,000 people are now forced to sell their homes to pay for care in their old age. Only the poorest, with total assets worth less than £23,000, qualify for any state support. Meanwhile, there are instances of local authorities cutting home care services to such an extent that charging for meals on wheels, which pensioners cannot then afford, has led to the NHS reporting that the number of admissions for malnutrition among the elderly has soared since 2007.
Sadly, some of the austerity measures have made matters worse, disproportionately hitting older people the hardest. In his Autumn Statement the Chancellor, the right honourable George Osborne, announced his second tax raid on pensions in less than three years, while the Government’s quantitative easing programme is penalising savers the most, many of whom are pensioners.
I welcome the fact that the Government have decided to put policies in place to enable those older people who wish to do so to continue working, a point made so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. These policies match an increasing willingness to work beyond state pension age but, at the same time, a recent ruling allowed companies to dismiss older workers at 65 on the grounds of the “public interest”, to make way for younger staff climbing the career ladder. With the average life expectancy for men now at 78, and 82 for women, can that really be right?
We need to learn again to value the elderly, cherish their contribution to society and respect their human dignity. Older people, too, need to try to value themselves more and resist the myth that, because they are less able, they are of less worth. The most reverend Primate recently met Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Last year, visiting an old people’s home in Rome, the 85 year-old pontiff reminded those present that it is “beautiful to be elderly” and said:
“It is necessary to discover in every age the presence and blessing of the Lord and the riches it contains”.
In the same month, speaking at a reception in Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols put it well when he said that how we care for older and disabled people is a crucial test of any civilised society. Benedict noted, as the most reverend Primate has done again today:
“In the Bible longevity is considered a blessing of God; today this blessing is widespread and must be seen as a gift to appreciate and to make the most of”.
“There can be no true human growth and education without fruitful contact with the elderly”.
Children learn so much from their grandparents, who at times of stress and crisis often hold families together with wisdom and love. That contact is crucial. With something like 800,000 children in the country today having no contact with their fathers, the role of grandparents becomes particularly important. My own children’s grandfather died a year ago, aged in his early 90s. He had been an Anglican priest for 60 years. I can say that he and his wife gave a great deal to my children. I think that the link between parenting, grandparenting and the needs of children is massively underestimated.
Even when older people are unable to physically contribute to the good of society, their dignity must be respected. Elderly people should never be discouraged; they are a richness for society, also in suffering and in sickness.
So what could the Government do in practical policy terms to improve the situation? First of all, they could consider learning from current care provision policies abroad. France, Germany and Japan all had a starting point for reform similar to that now existing in England. Today, all three now have implemented state-run social insurance arrangements for long-term care. Under those arrangements, all people covered by the system—often the whole adult population—are required to pay regular contributions either as taxes or as mandatory insurance premiums. In return, should the insured person develop a care need, they become entitled to support from the system, either as services or cash allowances, regardless of their need.
Younger people need to look less at what older people cannot physically do and instead learn from them by listening to their stories of growing older, transformation, self-transcendence, humility and wisdom. We need communities capable of hearing these stories, viewing the elderly not as aliens and strangers or unwanted burdens but as people who enrich us in so many unexpected ways. Surely, therefore, it is high time, and in all our interests, that elderly people are given the recognition, esteem and dignity that they deserve.
Not for the first time, and I am certain it will not be for the last, the most reverend Primate has focused our attention on a central and defining question of our times. Sometimes it is only when someone has left office that their true value is fully appreciated. In the case of the most reverend Primate, I think that we already know that to be so.