Do we need Commissioners for Older People and Ageing Well in England and Scotland? 

Do politicians seriously believe that promising to keep the triple lock pension will address the concerns of older adults about access to and the need for social care, health, housing and public transport? By Mervyn Eastman and Shirley Ayres

“To meet the needs of older people both now and in the future to ensure we can all be supported to age well, we need a more ambitious and strategic response.” Dr Carol Easton, CEO of Centre for Ageing Better.

Over 10 million people are currently aged 65 and over, making up 18% of the population. The number of people aged 65-79 is predicted to increase by nearly a third (30%) to over 10 million in the next 40 years, while the number of people aged 80 and over – the fastest growing segment of the population – is set to more than double to over 6 million. The number of people aged 65-79 is predicted to increase by nearly a third (30%) to over 10 million in the next 40 years. (The State of Ageing 2023-24: Centre for Ageing Better 2024). Do politicians seriously believe that promising to keep the triple lock pension will address the concerns of older adults about access to and the need for social care, health, housing and public transport? 

In September 2020, The Right Hon Lord George Faulkes sat on a platform alongside the National Pensioners Convention’s President and the Welsh Commissioner for Older People to campaign for the Westminster Government to appoint Commissioners for older adults and ageing in England and Scotland. Despite an array of the great and the good from across the age industry, the campaign failed.

It is interesting to note that in the spring of 2004, an Older People’s Commissioner Bill was published to establish the position for England and Scotland to enhance the protection of the Rights and interests of older adults and detailed the Commissioner’s general function and responsibilities, including the necessity to consult and engage with older people. Of interest was that the COP would not have the power to investigate individual complaints but could undertake investigations into the operation of Complaint Procedures related to service provision and “other matters related to the interests of older people.” In 2008, the Welsh Assembly Government established the position. It is worth noting that the Welsh Government was also the first in the world to produce an Older People’s Strategy.

Back in the days of the Coalition Government, the then Minister of State, with responsibility for Social Care, was asked directly by the attendees of the quarterly meeting of the Older Peoples Forum with Ministers to explain England’s rationale as to why the Administration had not advanced a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing Well. The response was informative for all the wrong reasons. It was too expensive, too cumbersome, and complicated given England’s geographical and governance spread. It was considered unnecessary because of the range of existing avenues older people already had to effectively engage with local, regional, and national politicians. What the Minister, and presumably civil servants, didn’t say was that Westminster did not want the aggravation of an independent Commissioner. Today, with the benefit and experience of both Wales and Northern Ireland, this rationale underestimates the views and frustrations of three generations of adults aged 65+ who have expectations about ageing well which are not currently being realised. 

Recent research from Independent Age and referenced previously by Age Action Alliance found that four in five older adults think the Government doesn’t understand us and believe that an Independent Commissioner would have the authority “to get things done. Older people, it concluded, are “overlooked, unheard and invisible.”  

Repeated governments have totally failed to both adequate resources and address societal and discriminatory policies that disadvantage older adults, be that life-long learning,  rural transport, fuel poverty, later life housing, health and social care, human rights….the list is endless. But are we convinced that a Commissioner would help England and the UK be “the best place in the world to grow old”? Are we in danger of overreaching our rhetoric by believing a Commissioner will achieve a fundamental shift in creating an age-friendly, rights-based, anti-ageist neighbourhood, let alone a nation? 

We decided via social media and emails to invite real time thoughts on the need for a Commissioner. There were six responses to the email with an opinion and three who felt they did not have sufficient experience and knowledge of the role. Sian Lockwood (@sian_lockwood) felt that via a Commissioner and the specific success of Helena Herklots (@HelenaHerklots) the Older Peoples Commissioner for Wales “government ministers would bear older adults in mind when developing policy and legislation.

Sian added that “the Role Description and person specification will of course be vital to appoint the right person” and “of equal importance older people should be involved in the appointment.” Rob Fountain (@robfountain1) was “yet to take a definitive view either way” but was leaning towards an independent Commissioner “would be a good thing…..and that there is a need for a more proactive consideration in policy to how ageing is experienced”. Rob, however noted some concerns, specifically “it would re enforce an ‘othering’ of older people, that could narrow the expected remit of such a role only to those things typically associated with old age – so shrinks what we expect later life to be.” and finally that a Commissioner “would not be given the same scope to take a life course approach.”  Sharing Sian’s perspective, as well as any applicant’s role and skill set, will be of the utmost importance. 

Neil Crowther @neilmcrowther), in the context of demographic change, felt that adaptation is key. While acknowledging the existing risks and challenges, he felt “ that the framing of the role and its purpose risks undermining rather than advancing progress. Concentrating on the interests of older people would have the effect of ‘othering’ and appear to be focused solely on the special interests of those falling into that category today.” 

Neil advocated a different role and that we ought to be thinking about a “Commissioner on Adapting to Demographic Change with a mission to command society-wide engagement and support.” Not surprisingly for those that know Neil’s background, he referenced that with regard to “the specific rights of older people, including non discrimination, we already  have the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which needs to be empowered to play the role Parliament assigned it in 2005 of promoting and enforcing equality and Human Rights.”

On balance, we unreservedly advocate the appointment of Commissioners for Older People and Ageing Well in England and Scotland (with the following caveats):

• The Office is adequately resourced

• It is independent and autonomous of Government officials and Ministers

• Empathetic: non oppressive or patronising identification and understanding of older adults as individuals and a significant demographic

• Resilient: determination and flexibility with significant emotional intelligence

• Professional: Focused and aware of the challenges confronting older adults and optimistic about the potential for change across government departments

• Value Driven: Respect for equality, worth, dignity, human rights and social justice.

The Commissioner must be able to hold elected members and officials of Westminster accountable, as well as regulatory, local government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This Office must surely have a brief which encompasses education, facilitation, advocacy and supporting campaigning partnerships and alliances. Most importantly we believe it is essential that a Commissioner for Older People should have the right to impose sanctions and the same status and authority as organisations such the National Audit Office.

Mervyn Eastman and Shirley Ayres

@MERVatLLARC and @shirleyayres

May 2024

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