Rowan Williams dismissed the governments version of Big Society as ‘waffle’, suggesting this approach in its current form is nothing more than the state withdrawing its responsibility from supporting those most vulnerable in society, especially older people. He may have a point.
Ageing in the UK can be a dismal experience for many sadly. From a European perspective research findings suggest older people’s experience of ageing in the UK falls behind that of many of its European counterparts, with the UK performing most poorly on indicators such as income, poverty and age discrimination. A recent report entitled ‘Ageing Across Europe’ by DEMOS, for the WRVS, states “the UK faces multiple challenges in providing older people with a positive experience of ageing, scoring poorly (although not always the worst) across every theme of the matrix” ( 2012, p.8). The media suggests the treatment of older people in care is now so bad that in many cases it meets the legal definition of torture and secret filming has exposed abuse of the elderly in care home settings.
As a society we know there is a problem and we know things have to change. Debate is developing on how the care of older people should be reformed with much discussion focusing on financial matters. Government is keen to continue to extend free market mechanisms across the public sector. This approach appears little different than previous governments, which have arguably contributed to the current situation, so it is unclear to me how this might improve the lives of older people.
The government is entrenched in a ‘public burden’ theory of welfare. The Coalition government have sought to return to an economic and political approach that more closely characterise New Right patterns of public protection. Building on Thatchers message of individual freedom, responsibility, free markets, minimal state intervention and the privatisation of previously publicly delivered services to older people, for example pensions and residential/nursing care, and more recently NHS health care. From this ideological perspective the free market transfers power away from government, previously mandated to ensure universal service provision, toward private capital and consumers whose individual choices drive standards up through increased competition between providers. Successive government have adhered to this belief for over 30 years, has it worked though?
Whilst such an approach is clearly of benefit to market providers, and the public purse, it is questionable whether it has been of benefit to older people, especially those in receipt of private pensions, healthcare and residential or nursing care. It could be argued the focus is on the displacement of ‘responsibility’ from the state to the individual rather than the transfer of power. The transfer of public provision to under regulated financial markets has not ‘redistributed’ power to all older people. There has been a doubling of the number of private care homes going bankrupt leaving older people without secure housing or care provision, whilst the HSBC bank was fined £10.5m for mis-selling care bonds to older people. The Financial Services Authority (2011) found unsuitable sales had been made to 87% of customers, with the average age of those who purchased bonds being 83 years of age, many of whom having already died before HSBC were exposed. The consequences of free market failure are made clear when considering private pension provision. The Telegraph points to recent findings on the mis-selling of pensions, however, this is not new, many of those who bought pensions in the 1980/90’s find themselves now without the pensions promised. Is government outraged? Apparently not since we are continuing along the same well trodden path. Of course this suits government because casting older people as consumers means the unaccountable decisions of multinational corporations individualises ageing, in that their living in poverty is seen as the problem of the older person rather than market failure, heaven forbid (as the Prime Minister might say to the Archbishop). From a governmental perspective, market failure is a justifiable risk and the mark of a free society, some pension funds will have made gains others losses, that is the nature of financial markets, there is no point moaning about ‘injustice’ !
In essence as individuals we are engaged in a system where the emphasis on consumer choice masks the dynamic and unpredictable process by which sudden change (and ultimately disadvantage) may visit upon a citizen at anytime. A report by the World Health Organisation (2008) makes a pertinent point when it suggests many of the negative experiences of older peoples’ lives are linked to structural determinants, i.e. pensions, poverty, access to free health and social care etc, suggesting tackling such factors is central to improving the lives of older people in the longer term.
Older people’s experiences of ageing in the UK can be improved, and it is all of our responsibility to try and achieve this. However, we first need a coherent strategy to bring about the change desired by so many. Government in the UK tend to address issues associated with an ageing population ‘within individual silos’ (WRVS,2012,p.103). Research from Europe suggests those countries taking a joined up approach, where government consider how factors such as income, health, age discrimination and inclusion interact, the more successful policy approaches are likely to be to improve the experience of ageing (WRVS, 2012, p.103).
My views on Big Society have been stated previously, we must not let Cameron’s idea of ‘Big Society’ get in the way of looking at our deeper structural problems. No matter how caring and kind we are to one another we are still at the mercy of the economy and financial systems. For Big Society to be more than ‘waffle’ we need an ‘active state’ (Sullivan, 2012), and maybe more importantly one able to learn from the mistakes of successive governments over the last 30 years, not keep repeating them.