As campaigning was temporarily suspended today in memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox, many will recall her watchwords ‘There is more that unites us than divides us.’
There have been lots of phoney wars in this election, especially with the new Leader of UKIP/Tory Theresa May blaming foreigners and immigrants for most of our problems. One false dividing line is the so-called war between the generations. This morning on the Marr show, DWP Secretary of State Damian Green claimed that the Tories’ new social care for the elderly policy is about promoting ‘inter-generational fairness’.
It is fashionable (but wrong) to say that the older generation are having it easy at the expense of the younger generation. People over 65 have paid into the state system all of their working lives in a social contract that should mean they are looked after through their old age. Even now 1.6 million pensioners officially live in poverty according to Age UK. The issue is not inter-generational, it is that the few have got richer and the many have got poorer across all generations.
I do not suffer from the seemingly natural tendency towards conservatism amongst older people, nor do I share the nostalgia of many for an imagined better past. But these feelings have been exploited by the Conservatives. With their friends at the Daily Mail, they have convinced many elderly voters that they are on their side. The evidence is less convincing: it was Cameron’s ‘triple lock’ on pensions that established their pro-elderly credentials, but at the same time they were stripping away funding for social care and raising the pension age. Women have been hit very hard by deferring the pension age. There are also many people in physical and draining jobs – my Dad worked on building sites all his life and was exhausted when he retired at 65 – who will fall out of work in their 60s and spend years waiting for their pension, being subjected to the humiliation of seeking benefits in the nasty and vindictive climate created by Iain Duncan Smith.
The Tories were warned constantly about the damage being done to social care by their cuts. Cameron liked to pretend that austerity would be met by efficiencies and savings in the back room. This was never true and front-line services have been savaged, especially when they were not backed by specific statutory rights. The cuts in social care have had a serious knock-on to the NHS, due to (the rather unpleasantly named) ‘bed blocking’ – where people are not able to leave hospital because even short-term care is not available at home.
Many councils tackled the cuts by first removing low level services like garden maintenance and shopping. Low level they may have been, but for many these were a lifeline and the watershed between independence and dependence. Such services were often provided through local charities who offered volunteering opportunities for young people and some great inter-generational work was done. As the cuts deepened, even services for those most in need were pared back and scandals like the ’15 minute visit’ and poverty wages (many carers are not paid for the time spent travelling between appointments) became more common. Everyone agrees it is both better and cheaper to enable an older person to stay at home, and it is normally their wish to do so.
In housing, older people have been failed too. There have been far too few options for older people, whether tenants or owners, to downsize into more suitable accommodation, releasing larger homes for others to rent or buy. Although May’s current proposals will hit at home owners, the extraordinarily successful sheltered accommodation service run mainly by councils and new supported housing projects have been fatally undermined by changes in funding regimes.
So, having captured the grey vote, they think securely, the Tories feel they can now take it for granted. Their ‘triple whammy’ – ending the pensions triple lock, removing winter fuel payments for most, and requiring people to pay for care at home with their house – means they have lost any claim to be the pensioners’ friend.
Their social care policy is perverse. In many cases a family carer lives with the older person, doing much of the care but relying on council services a lot of the time. If these external care needs are high, the carer’s sacrifice will now be rewarded, when the older person dies, by having to sell the house to repay the cost of the care received. The carer, who may have devoted years of their life to this role, will be both grieving and having to oversee the sale of the home. They will in effect make themselves homeless, and in most of the country they will not inherit enough to buy another home. It is a callous mind that could invent such a system.
The new system contains no incentive to enable an older person to remain in their home. If their care needs are high, for example if they have dementia but are physically able, their estate will be diminished to £100,000 whatever they do. They might as well go into an expensive care home. Yet Theresa May has the gall to say that her plan is ‘the best way to enable more people to stay in their homes because they won’t be worried about the cost of care because they will know that will be sorted after they have died’. She appears not to know anything about older people and how they see the world.
And remember, not one penny piece of the exchequer savings made by this policy will be redirected into support for young people, who are being punished at the same time with policies ranging from tuition fees to the removal of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Instead, the money will actually be used for the Tory priorities of reducing corporate taxes and taxes on high earners. As the Tories take it out on older people, the myth of the war between generations deserves to be exposed.