Lord Filkin was bitingly critical in his response to the Government’s response to his committee’s report on ‘Ready for Ageing?’ The report had peered twenty years ahead, and found that the political establishment was ‘woefully underprepared’ for the enormous changes presented by an ageing society: the response, Lord Filkin declared, showed that the Government was ‘wilfully underprepared’ to address these issues. He damned its focus ‘on past achievements and the coming election’, when what he wanted was a frank assessment of the changes we will need to make in welfare policies, pensions, health and social care, public services and citizen behaviour over the next couple of decades.
We share Lord Filkin’s frustration. It is clear that the Government finds it difficult to think long term – which is perhaps understandable in a Coalition Government with a programme pivoted on 2015. Whilst they have ignored the suggestion to produce a White Paper setting out strategies to approach changing demographics the Government’s rather minimalist response to ask its chief scientist to review the impact of ageing on policies may produce some fruit.
The original call from the House of Lords committee to get the issue into election manifestos – and by extension to get the political and policy community treating it more energetically and creatively – remains valid. Our increasing longevity is something few people would not want to vote for, but the challenges it poses to the ‘business as usual’ case are quite profound.
The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has also ventured into similar territory. Its annual Fiscal Sustainability Report takes an even more adventurous fifty year horizon, and the latest report found that on the basis of no change to existing policies ageing could be costing the Government in the 2060s a lot – 4 to 5% more of our national Gross Domestic Product than today, or £60-70bn more in Government spending in today’s money. Of course we can change the way we age, and hence the cost, by investing in prevention and other policy changes, but whilst the OBR does not have the remit to propose what changes might be required, Lord Filkin is quite right to challenge the political establishment to engage with the options more openly and purposefully.
What is really disappointing about the Government’s ‘weak’ response to the Lords’ committee is its silo thinking. Each of the six ministers signing the response has had his Department contribute its current thinking, but there is no cross referencing. For example, were we to build more housing where older people could live successfully and independently, could we think about cutting down on social care expenditure? If we invested in training and equipping older people to use sophisticated communications technology, could we better harness their skills and time to shape community budgets and the delivery of local services? If we asked – and listened – to older people’s views on what they would like the state to be providing in twenty years’ time, would we have a better map to follow? We need, as Lord Filkin was trying to stimulate, a Big Conversation about a world which will look quite different in the next few decades.