The New Year’s Honours have been greeted by some, one might say the usual suspects with disdain over the continued use of “Empire” in some awards plus the “buggins turn” whereby senior civil servants get an award just based upon rank and service rather than any attempt at justification by personal merit.
This post does not focus on the Honours System which much like the BBC gets hit as an Aunt Sally from all sides of the political spectrum when people feel disgruntled about something and for whatever reason. This post is focused on what reforms we can make to our political system so that it is seen as more relevant and more responsive to, more people.
How any revision of the way we govern ourselves may shape up is difficult to say, it is a situation that needs to develop and I’m sure it will in an organic manner but it most certainly everything should be on the table and being one, I will focus on OAPs in this post. However there is one over riding concept or acceptance of a concept that everybody needs to get behind but not in an ‘old fashioned’ party political sense of Left and Right, this concerns deciding the limits of what the State should provide because believe it or not, this lies at the heart of the debate.
This debate needs to be very open because the ‘understanding’ that society needs to come to is to define its priorities and therefore the very language used in the political landscape going forward. The problem is that for the past 20/30 years, there has been an attitude that “The State Should Provide…” and this expectation has grown with every minority pressure group that appears to grab the attention of the Media. Now 20 years ago, trying to have a sensible conversation about the limits that should be imposed on the State could never happen, it would have been consumed in Right/Left Wing dogma battles but today, things have changed because few of the public are politically so polarised as they were back then.
Today’s voter on average may be a “Bit Socialist” on some issues “A True Blue Tory” on others and even a bit “LibDem and Hippy” here and there. Most people do not see themselves as being either a “Coal Miner” or a “Toff from Eaton” by default, they have little sympathy with either because they do not reflect their lives and their concerns. In a sense, if one described our current political parties as churches or religions which speak to the world in the sort of fashion one would expect of such institutions, the audience or congregations they are trying to attract are agnostic, not atheist just agnostic and deaf to their ‘standard’ entreaties. So from this, just how do we start a sensible conversation about taxation, spending and priorities ?
Bag of Cement, Plank of Wood
I suggest we approach the issue from a simple but fundamental perspective. Because I went through a divorce some 30 years ago and lived a rather nomadic life for a couple of decades, it was a long time since I had to get involved in DIY projects. However all this changed 7 years ago following the death of my Mother and me having to maintain the property I had inherited. Now being an old codger, there are some jobs that are beyond my physical abilities and I have to get people to do them for me at what seems often like an awful lot of money. No it is not that I’m being ripped off it is just down to modern wages and what people need to earn.
What I find amazing in relative terms, is with those jobs that I can still do just how small a cost the actual raw materials are. Okay it still takes me a long time to finish the job between a lack of stamina and at times, interest but it doesn’t cost a lot of money for the materials. Believe it or not, this really is the basis of discussing just what it is the State should provide and I would suggest those ‘jobs’ that are paid and those which are unpaid.
The base decision is not about the cost of the raw materials, it is all about the cost of labour to do the job and whether society can find a better way of providing that service or facility which marries into the question of priorities. The obvious area to focus on is the question of old people like me because we the old, are the largest consumers of welfare resources. My local MP James Heappey wrote an interesting piece on his website about the problems of an ageing population and their local impact: https://www.jamesheappey.org.uk/news/james-heappey-mp-weekly-column-25
The Problem of Private Pensions
The major problem with OAPs is our longevity but a long life does not necessarily mean a healthy one and this has impacts in very many directions. In 1948 when the NHS started it had a budget of £437 million which in today’s terms equals roughly £15 billion, today the NHS budget for 2015/16 equalled £116 billion and “It isn’t enough !” they say but, this is one area of State spending where there is no limit to how much will be sucked in if, it isn’t controlled properly.
I can remember as an altar boy in a working class district of South London during the 1950s that the ‘old boys’ retired at 65 and many we buried just a couple of years or so later. In fact in many occupational pension schemes up until the 1970s, the majority of pensioners only drew their pensions for a few years after retirement compared to the current day when people may be retired for 20/30 years. The consequence has been that private or ‘company’ pension schemes based upon the pension being paid related to the final salary of the employee have disappeared for the vast majority of workers.
Instead of promising a ‘final salary’ outcome because it is unaffordable for most businesses, companies have switched to paying into the workers personal pension fund, a specific amount of money expressed as a percentage of salary but with no guarantees as to what the outcome will be worth come retirement day. Now whilst this makes total sense for individual businesses today, in the broader sense, it probably doesn’t because anything that impacts the UK economy sooner or later will inevitably impact private businesses too. Now whilst I am not suggesting that companies should be forced to reinstate final salary schemes, there needs to be an acceptance on their part that taxes upon them will probably need to rise to meet this burden on society. Equally, the Government and Parliament may well have to provide generous tax incentives to businesses to offset higher taxes upon them if they make more generous pension arrangements for their employees.
Now frankly there is nothing new in this however there is a specific reason as to why it needs to be part of the “debate” and that is because in both business and politics we have people who now days think very short term. It is 5 years between elections for politicians, the next annual shareholders meeting for business people but this is a long term problem that requires thinking and actions today framed in terms of 20-40 years ahead because clearly, society isn’t and hasn’t been saving enough for a very long time.
The most important thing that we all need to remember when it comes to government spending whether on pensions, welfare or the NHS or indeed in any area is the following: “Today’s taxes Pay today’s benefits” there is no fund or magic pot of money anywhere to cover these costs that can be drawn down.
National Care Service
Obviously with age, OAPs become major users of NHS services and when taken into hospital, are often difficult to discharge safely back into the community, particularly if they live alone so they end up becoming major bed/resource blockers. This combination of people being ‘as fit as can be expected and certainly fit enough to be discharged’ is bringing about a major funding problem because the NHS budget is getting used for ‘welfare purposes’ and the boundaries between medical care and social care are becoming blurred.
When it comes to residential care homes, the fairly constant mantra is that the local councils cannot afford to pay enough to make the privately owned ‘care business’ economically viable which does have a knock on effect in terms of them not being able to afford the best quality staff to do the actual caring. This problem is serious, exists right now and can only get worse unless a positive strategy is developed and agreed in the immediate future but this will take major political muscle and courage to bring about because some sacred cows will have to be slaughtered.
The probable solution is to set up a taxpayer funded National Care Service to provide safe and supervised support to old people both for long term care but also to free up hospital resources by giving them a ‘safe place’ to discharge old people to. This will probably force existing private care homes to ‘go up market’ or go out of business. Just like the NHS, the promise would be that the service will be free at the point of delivery however such a promise would need to be funded and just piling on the taxes for today’s workforce is not the solution so some imaginative thinking is required.
The most obvious one concerns property that an OAP may own but because of disability are no longer able to live in by themselves. Obviously there will often be circumstances where ‘children’ cannot live with or have their aged parent living with them plus, there maybe good reasons why it is considered better to keep someone in their own home so there needs to be flexibility. However as we are talking about taxpayer funding, the idea that the State picks up the tab and on the death of an old person so cared for, their family receives the proceeds of the sale of their property is a nonsense we need to think imaginatively.
A possible solution is that once a person is declared as not able to return ‘home’ on a permanent basis, their property should be transferred to a trust. The trust would maintain the property, rent it out and the income would go to the State. On the death of the old person, the property would be sold, there would be a formula for the trust to recover some of its maintenance costs from the proceeds with the residue of the capital being paid to the estate of the deceased and thence to their family (typically) or other heirs. The above is not a detailed proposal, it is only an outline but the principle is to inject some common sense and fairness where short of a pandemic that wipes out most OAPs, this problem can only get worse in the decades ahead. Also, whilst a trust renting out property should be relatively easy in areas of high demand for housing, it may not work as well in all parts of the UK where demand is weak so we need to have a flexible approach.
The other issue concerns staffing such a service. Whilst there should be highly qualified, motivated and well paid permanent staff to run this service, they should be few in number, the majority of the workforce should be non salaried but well trained volunteers who work limited hours per week and are paid an allowance in line with say the current careers allowance. The incentive for these volunteers is quite simple: “You too might need this service so deliver the quality you would expect as a patient.” The aim would be to deliver a higher quality of life to residents in their declining years plus freeing the full time professionals from the more menial or social interaction tasks involved in delivering care. It makes sense to use a volunteer workforce because trying to do the same whilst creating “proper career jobs” would be prohibitively unaffordable. As is demonstrated historically in some care homes, employing unmotivated people working long unsocial shifts on low pay can often lead to major problems. Properly handled, highly motivated volunteers probably only working four four hour shifts in a week, should remain fresh.
Rather than looking at a volunteer workforce as ‘under cutting full time jobs’, they need to be seen as people who are putting in time that in a sense, builds up a credit for them and theirs when the time comes that they need similar support. Because of geography and circumstances someone may not be able to support their own elderly relatives but they can still make a contribution locally to where they live by looking after someone else’s as a volunteer.