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Government fails to be open with the public about the challenge of our ageing society

The Government's response to the House of Lords Public Service and Demographic Change Committee report Ready for Ageing? has today been slammed by the Chairman of the Committee, Lord Filkin, as weak and failing to give leadership on the biggest social change facing our society.

The Committee called for the Government to produce a White Paper setting out the scale of the challenges from our rapidly ageing population and the implications for individuals and society, and to invite business, financial services providers and others to consider how we all need to change to make a success of an ageing society. The Government have failed to address this call.

Last week, adding emphasis to the Committee's conclusions, NHS England reported that the NHS in England faces a funding gap of around £30bn by 2020/21, and the head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, stated that Government “should be more active and effective in influencing citizens to save more and plan more effectively for retirement, and in seeking to change the negative attitudes of some employers towards older workers”.

The Government's response asserts that they have done much to address ageing, and they have taken some sensible initial steps, but Lord Filkin is concerned that these are as much about saving public expenditure as helping individuals to prepare for much longer lives.

Commenting Lord Filkin said:

“Our rapidly ageing society is our biggest social change, profoundly affecting our economy, public services, finances and every person and family in the country. The Government's weak response has failed again to address this and is deeply disturbing. Our Committee found our society was “woefully underprepared” for ageing; with this response the Government appear to be wilfully underprepared.

“We need the Government to publish a White or Green Paper as an analysis of this issue and to be straight with the public about the choices. The Government have failed to commit to this. Government's job is to lead informed debate for our society, individuals and business on how we all address our biggest social change and challenge to ensure it is beneficial – not a crisis. We are pleased the Government will ask their Chief Scientist to review the impact of ageing but this alone will not be enough to tackle the momentous issues we face.

“Government and all political parties prefer to keep the public in the dark in the run-up to the election about the looming challenges to our welfare settlement. Yet how political parties will address these imminent challenges ought to be central to the election debate.

“The Government's focus is on past achievements and the coming election rather than what we need to do to address this major social change and how we re-shape our welfare settlement to be fair to all generations, young and old.

“In the light of this the members of my Committee intend to challenge all political parties to address these issues properly and honestly before the next General Election.”

The Committee's report highlighted a number of challenges associated with an ageing society. The Committee said that urgent action must be taken to prevent the great boon of longer lives turning into a series of miserable crises:

  • Huge changes are happening now; there will be almost 40% more people aged 85 in England within a decade compared to 2011, and twice as many by 2030 compared to 2010.
  • The impact on our public services is already apparent: treatment and care for people with long-term conditions accounted for 70% of the health and social care spend in England in 2010, while the number of people aged 65 in England and Wales with dementia is expected to rise by over 80% by 2030. Lord Filkin points to the present crisis in A&E as a symptom of the longer-term problem identified by the Committee.
  • The NHS and social care face major increases in demand and cost; there is no assessment of this by the Department of Health provided in the response. Without radical changes in the way that health and social care serve the population, needs will remain unmet and cost pressures will rise inexorably; the response fails to set out a vision for this. If we want to keep older, frail people out of hospital this must be addressed.
  • Living much longer means many will want or need to work for longer; there has to be a debate about how to make extended working lives and gradual retirement the new norm.
  • Government have made progress with the single state pension; but many people will face an alarming drop in income on retirement yet are unaware of this. The Government have estimated that 10.7 million people in Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) can expect inadequate retirement incomes. Government, business and the pensions industry must work together to reform defined contribution pensions which dominate but are seriously inadequate for many.
  • Central and local government, housing associations and house builders need urgently to plan how to ensure that the housing needs of the older population are better addressed.
  • The ageing of the population means that the Government and all political parties may need to consider choices about the welfare state and what we want from our social settlement for the future. The Government need to expose the options and communicate the choices to the public. Politicians in all parties need to face up to the challenges of our ageing society.

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