Fear of punishment at the ballot box is preventing our politicians from grasping the challenges of an ageing population, writes John Fitzsimons.
Whenever there’s an issue with some form of public services in the UK, there will inevitably be the call to look at how they do it in Scandinavia.
From schools to hospitals to public transport (where thank goodness there doesn’t appear to be a Swedish equivalent of Chris Grayling) our Nordic cousins have an excellent reputation for running things properly and seem to take it in turns to top the various ‘happiness’ indices.
And while there are undoubtedly lessons to learn from the way they do things, it’s notable that they are having issues tackling a subject that is causing its fair share of heartache at home – how to adapt to an ageing population.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before
Finland’s Government collapsed last month following issues passing legislation aimed at revamping its health and social care system.
Successive Governments have been well aware of the problems that Finland’s ageing population present, but have had a nightmare actually getting any laws passed that might allow them to tackle the problem.
As one policymaker told the FT: “This is the problem: we know what needs to be done but doing it means you will probably not get re-elected.”
Why change seems impossible
Finland may be seen as more progressive when it comes to various social policies, but it suffers from a very similar problem to us in the UK.
Introducing measures that may strip away some of the benefits afforded to older people is all the more difficult when those same older people are the ones most likely to turn up to vote in local and national elections.
You can’t particularly blame people for being wary about voting for policies that will leave them worse off, but you end up in a situation where politicians are scared to even suggest such measures for fear of what will happen to them at the ballot box.
You only have to look back to the 2017 general election campaign for an excellent example of that.
The Conservative Party included in its manifesto proposals that would see financially comfortable older people use some of the wealth they have accrued to go towards their social care.
Given the huge funding gap social care faces, it’s not the worst idea in the world – people who receive that care, and who have sufficient assets, would contribute more towards the cost of that care, but with a ‘floor’ to ensure they could still leave at least a certain amount to their loved ones.
But within days it had been branded the ‘Dementia Tax’ by opponents, with the party immediately backtracking on the idea.
The pension ‘triple lock’ is another example. It was introduced at a time that State Pensions were in a sorry state, but in reality, we can’t afford such generous guarantees any more.
Yet getting changes through is an uphill battle.
This situation is ridiculous. Rather than take action now, we kick the can down the road, leaving it as yet another problem for future generations to sort out. It’s a similar approach that we take towards climate change.
But addressing the challenges of an ageing population can’t be put off, or treated as someone else’s problem.
It’s our problem, right now.
And if we are going to address those challenges, from the apparently untouchable benefits older people are entitled to, to how we all pay for the escalating costs of social care, then uncomfortable conversations are going to be needed.
Not just among politicians, but as a nation.
Because that money has to come from somewhere.
If we expect the state to look after us in old age, including footing the bill for that social care, then we are all going to have to accept higher tax bills, whether we are young or old, in great health or ill.
And if we don’t want to go down that road, then we need to talk about how individuals can contribute more towards their own care, without denigrating into describing proposals as a ‘Dementia Tax’ or indulging in the hyperbole that has characterised our politics over the last decade or so.
As a nation we are getting older, and if we want to deal with that, it will involve some grown-up conversations. Maybe then our Scandinavian cousins will look to follow our lead for once.
What changes do you think need to be made to raise funds to care for the elderly? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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