Mary Dejevsky: Let the old care for the elderly

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The Independent Online

What with "free schools" on the Swedish model, a Star Chamber "cuts" arbiter borrowed from Canada, and its interest in Danish back-to-work schemes, the Coalition has been looking admirably further afield than the US think-tanks that were New Labour's standard first port of call for examples worthy of replication. Now it is suggested that Japan, too, might have something to offer us in the way it tries to balance the books on care for the elderly. The idea is that volunteers could earn vouchers, or credits, which they could put towards their own care when the time came.

The very notion, of course, was instantly rejected in predictable quarters, where it was insisted that this would be no substitute for the Government's duty to provide free care for those who needed it. But there is surely more than the germ of a useful thought here. Vouchers or some sort of discount on future care might not be workable, or even desirable, but why should the early retired or the "young elderly" not be encouraged to take part-time – paid – jobs in the care sector and its various branches? Not vouchers, but real money.

Help for people in their own homes or in residential accommodation is currently provided almost exclusively by (disgracefully) low-paid migrant workers or poorly-qualified Britons. The quality of the care is patchy, to say the least. Some of it is execrable.

What is needed is understanding, some time to chat, and a great deal of flexibility about hours and tasks to be performed. Why not encourage care to be given by people who are closer in age and experience to those who need it? The pay could supplement increasingly inadequate state pensions, while the experience could smoothe the passage from care-giver to care-recipient. Flexible hours, days, even months, could be devised to suit all concerned. The quality should improve, as the carers see their future mirrored in those they are helping. Do as you would be done by.

Japan is too often dismissed as a source of good ideas, first because of the cultural differences (which are not to be underestimated), but also because of the way Japan's economy has developed – low-spending and high-saving, which precipitated stagnation, followed by deflation – which is almost universally judged by Western cognoscenti to be A Bad Thing. The Japanese, though, are not as unhappy with their lot as "we" tend to think they should be.

Their falling population and ageing society, even deflation, has certain advantages – more wealth to go round (even though the pie as a whole may be shrinking), more space, lower prices, a smaller number of young men of an age likely to commit crimes... And Japan is at the forefront of devising ways – human and technological – to cope with ageing. The future of care for the elderly in Britain may not be vouchers for volunteers, but let's not exclude the possibility of learning from Japan.

High-speed train envy must be stopped in its tracks

For anyone of a certain age who takes the Eurostar, the conversation – even 16 years on – is likely to touch at some point on the wonder of travelling between London and the Continent by train and the near-incredible feat of reaching the French/British/Belgian capital in only a little more than two hours. Anyone younger simply takes it for granted that Brussels and Paris are up there on the departures board at St Pancras alongside Sheffield and Leeds, and gets on with it, give or take passport control and a security check.

As the Eurostar sped me through the tunnel towards Brussels recently, however, an interloper was coming the other way. Deutsche Bahn was running its first train to London from Germany, blazing a trail intended to become a commercial service from Cologne and Frankfurt in three years' time. (Why so long?)

Not everyone is happy with even that leisurely timetable, however. The French have been distinctly dog-in-the-mangerish. They recently objected on questionable safety grounds, when Eurostar announced that it would buy German (Siemens) rather than French (Alstom) rolling stock to augment its fleet, and they have been less than effusive about Deutsche Bahn's cross-Channel ambitions. Which is a pity, because without the French and their pioneering TGVs, there might never have been a new age of European rail travel. And they have had a good innings. Last year, I was waiting for a Berlin train at Stuttgart when a TGV from Paris glided into the adjacent platform – as glorious a form of national power projection as any country could aspire to.

Egalitarianism is not why you go to Oxford

Almost like old times in Oxford last week, as I found myself, within minutes of stepping off the coach, on the fringe of a real live student protest. There they were – 700 or so of them, as I overheard someone estimate – processing noisily down the High Street. There was even a hi-vis police presence, seemingly prepared to defend the Radcliffe Camera to the death. The slogans, too, had a comfortingly retro simplicity: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts", was about as sophisticated as it got. Though I'm not sure that banners emblazoned "F**k the Cuts" would have passed muster all those years ago.

I was puzzled, though, by one popular and seemingly mass-produced placard, which read "No to elitism". One way or another, Oxford University students are among the most rigorously selected in the country, the world even – and I'm not talking about money. Like it or not, they constitute an elite, and elite is what Oxford is and what Oxford does. If, having jumped through the considerable hoops required to get there, some of this privileged bunch now see fit to reject elitism, that smacks to me, just a little, of hypocrisy.

If it's egalitarianism they're after, there are all sorts of institutions I could point them to instead. Same thing if they believe, deep in their hearts, that tuition at Oxford, where twice-weekly one-to-one tutorials remain the norm, should cost no more than anywhere else. Oxford should be proud to be elitist – and so should the students fortunate enough to be studying there.