James Daley: The Government doesn't seem to care about this long-term crisis
Saturday 05 February 2005
Alan Johnson, the work and pensions minister, unveiled his optimistically titled "five-year strategy" this week - a thoroughly underwhelming piece of work which is supposed to outline the backbone of his ministry's policy through to 2010.
In reality, this was just a fancy way of dressing up the awkward news that incapacity benefit is being scrapped and replaced with two new "allowances" which are subject to much more stringent screening processes, and which will save the Government millions of pounds a year.
The rest of the report is a wishy-washy non-committal ramble through the Government's vision for a "fairer" Britain, where people will have more "choice", and where age and disability discrimination will be eliminated. All very New Labour.
Although the document acknowledges that the UK pensions landscape is in need of further change, Johnson and his cronies concede that they haven't figured out quite what they are going to do about that yet. Some strategy.
The fudging of the pensions issue was to be expected. But it was the line about age discrimination that got me going. In spite of persistent cooing about how much it has done for pensioners since it came to power in 1997, New Labour remains the only one of the three main political parties to have no coherent policy for addressing the funding crisis in the long-term care sector.
With thousands of elderly people still being wrongly denied state benefits to pay for their personal or nursing care needs, or being wrongly advised to sell their homes to pay for care, this is one of Britain's biggest social scandals.
The Government's refusal to even acknowledge the problem remains one of the worst examples of age discrimination in the UK today, capitalising on the fact that the victims of this scandal are usually in no position to stand up and fight.
At its very worst, people are losing their lives at the hands of the Government's inaction. With few easy ways for the elderly or their families to get advice when they need to move into a care home, temporary financial arrangements are often made. It's only when their money runs out, and when they can no longer afford to pay the home's fees, that they are told how to get access to state benefits. This usually involves moving to a cheaper care home - a move that often proves to be too much upheaval for the most frail patients.
Although Alan Johnson would probably say that long-term care is the Department of Health's, not his, problem, one of the main hindrances to sorting out the current confusion is the Government's lack of joined-up thinking. Long-term care financial planning is inextricably linked to the issue of pensions, and needs to be given proper consideration in the ongoing pensions debates.
The Treasury's belief that the answer to the pension crisis lies in people using the equity in their homes is flawed, not least because the Government's care bill would rocket beyond all control if people did not keep their homes to fund potential care bills. But the Government is unlikely to ever realise this, as the Treasury, Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions don't do much talking.
Alan Johnson's five year strategy is a joke. I can only hope that something more responsible and creative will follow once the election is out the way.
Why is there all this fuss about cash machines?
It was a good job there were no seats left when I arrived at the Treasury Select Committee hearing on cash machine charges last week. Confined to the overspill room down the hall - where the committee's nonsense was beamed in over a big screen - I was free to laugh out loud as the MPs unsuccessfully attempted to make a mountain out of a molehill.
As the directors of Halifax and Royal Bank of Scotland - and then the heads of four "charging" cash-machine operators - were subjected to mindless interrogation about how big the warnings should be on the front of charging ATMs, I wondered if there was not a better way for MPs to spend their time.
After three hours of repetitive questioning, the only apparent conclusion was that 14-point type was not big enough to warn punters they might get charged for withdrawing their cash. Revolutionary.
For those of you who have let yourself get caught up in the hype about the growth of charging cash machines, here's a few facts:
The proportion of ATMs that charge is now 40 per cent - compared to zero per cent five years ago. However, most of these are in places where there was previously no cash-point. The number of free ATMs has continued to rise - so you can still get your money free just as easily as ever. The banks are committed to maintaining a large free ATM network - because they know that if they don't, they'll get lynched. All ATMs that charge give you the option to quit if you don't want to pay. So why all the fuss?
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