Overall, today’s Comprehensive Spending Review represents a fair deal for people in later life, with a range of announcements on pensions, social care and universal benefits. Firstly, we were relieved to see no cuts to universal benefits paid to older people, from free eye tests to the Winter Fuel Allowance. These benefits make a huge difference to the lives of the millions of older people managing on low incomes, and their protection is very welcome.
The Treasury obviously listened to Age UK’s top call for the Spending Review, “Don’t cut care”, with care budgets fairing far better than expected just a few weeks ago. The Chancellor rather over-egged the announcement, by describing the package as £2 billion of new money. In truth, the extra resource from the Department of Health will only plug the gap in the government-wide cut to local government support. Overall, we expect that spending on care will fall modestly in real terms over the next four years; but it could have been far, far worse. Half of the money for care will come from the NHS budget, which we support, as health and social care are inextricably linked. The rest will be a grant for councils that will be earmarked for care services, but not ring-fenced – so it will be down to local campaigners to ensure that councils actually maintain care budgets in each community.
On the NHS, we were pleased to see an acknowledgement that the proposed £20bn savings would need to be reinvested, and that it was important to make these savings to face up to the reality of our ageing population. Sustained funding for dementia research will be welcomed by the thousands of sufferers and their families and friends across the UK.
We saw good news on the Post Office network, a vital lifeline for many older people, particularly those in rural areas; the temporary increase in the level of Cold Weather Payments will become permanent; and the Government’s commitment to roll out superfast broadband should hopefully encourage more people in later life to go online.
However, it wasn’t all good news. The State Pension Age will now be raised to 66 between 2018 and 2020 for both men and women, substantially before the previous plan of 2025-26 – and in breach of the coalition agreement’s commitment not to raise women’s state pension age. Many people approaching the end of their working lives will be disappointed that this rise is coming six years earlier than expected, and it is worth bearing in mind that this change will not save the Government any money for another eight years. That said, it could have been worse, as the original proposal was for men’s pension age to rise from 2016.
The Warm Front programme will, as expected, be phased out when new energy efficiency and climate change programmes come on stream. To accompany this, we now need urgent national and local plans for tackling fuel poverty, particularly among older people. One in five households containing someone over 65 are currently experiencing fuel poverty – that’s too many households facing the difficult choice between heating and eating. With energy prices continuing to rise, we’ll be scrutinising the Government’s forthcoming proposals to ensure they prioritise affordability for low income groups, not just climate change.
The Chancellor has done better than many feared at safeguarding public services and pensioner benefits over the short term. But so far, the Government’s thinking has been focused on the next four years, not the decades to come. With the immediate task of cutting the deficit now underway, Age UK will be challenging the Government to raise its sights to the horizon and develop responses to the long-term challenges of our ageing society, across care, the NHS, pensions and the consumer market.