What conference season reveals about parties’ plans for our ageing population
Ageing Better has been in attendance at the Conservative and Labour Party Conferences in Manchester and Liverpool over the last two weeks.
Our Parliamentary and Public Affairs Officer, Christos Tuton, gives his observations from the ground and what insights it gives to possible election manifesto promises.
Over the past few weeks, the UK’s political parties have been gathering in their thousands at conferences around the country.
Party conferences are always an important time in the political calendar, but with a general election anticipated within the next 12 months, this year’s conferences were seen as the first step for parties to get onto an election footing.
Having attended Labour and Conservative conferences, we have gathered some useful insights into what each party might be planning over this next year and how their election campaigns could pan out.
There were some real positives to take away:
At the Conservative Party Conference, I watched Guy Opperman, Minister for Employment, talking passionately and convincingly about the unique challenges faced by older workers and the importance of tackling economic inactivity amongst those aged 50+.
He rightly emphasised the importance of ‘Mid-life MOTs’ as a mechanism for ensuring that people have a better grasp of their personal wellbeing, work, and wealth as they age and think about their future.
It was also pleasing to hear Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Housing, Levelling Up and Communities, say that the Renter’s Reform Bill will return to parliament this autumn for its second reading.
Renter’s rights need strengthening across the board and, with the number of people aged 55 and over who are renting having doubled in the last two decades, reform is vital.
At the Labour Party Conference, Gill Furniss, Shadow Minister for Pensions, indicated that Labour would be interested in looking into the appointment of a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing for England.
We hope that the party will come forward and make this a commitment after over 80 organisations signed a joint statement calling for the appointment of an independent commissioner to ensure policymaking considers the needs of England's ageing population.
Labour has also pledged to bring forward a New Deal for Working People in its first 100 days of government should they win the next general election. This would modernise and upgrade existing employment rights.
If greater rights around flexible working and caring responsibilities are included, these could help people stay in the workforce for longer if they want to or need to.
Areas of concern
There was a noticeable amount of rhetoric stoking intergenerational conflict at both conferences, pitting younger people against older people, particularly on topics like housing and pensions.
This kind of narrative obscures the real issues, doesn’t help anyone and worsens the public debate. We really hope this doesn’t become a recurring theme in the election campaign.
All generations would benefit from a housing overhaul in the UK. We need both more homes and better-quality homes, so that we can all live in safe, warm places.
The UK currently has some of the coldest, oldest and worst quality housing in Western Europe, and one in seven of us currently live in dangerous homes.
Our latest report shows that annually, on average, the UK Government spends more on maintaining the Houses of Parliament than on helping us to improve our homes.
At times, the debate around pensions was also counter-productive and presented as a zero-sum game.
It is possible to have both a state pension that keeps the poorest pensioners out of poverty, and working age benefits that do the same.
Focus should be placed on improving the lives of everyone, not increasing poverty amongst one group, and making it seem like that inherently benefits another.
After all, the state pension is already below the amount required to meet the minimum Retirement Living Standard.
Reflecting on party conference season and looking ahead to the next general election, we would like to see political parties commit to policies that would help us all age better, especially given that the UK has a rapidly ageing population.
The emphasis on “long-term decisions” from the Conservative Party and “a Britain that’s built to last” from the Labour Party present an encouraging opportunity for forward-thinking policymaking.
Tackling the UK’s dangerous homes to improve the health and wellbeing of future generations, and appointing a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing for England would show that both parties are serious about their slogans.
Alongside the Labour Party’s focus on improving employment rights, we would like to see them be bolder in their plans to support workers in their 50s and 60s stay in work for as long as they want or need to.
Liz Kendall, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said that Labour wants to break down barriers “so no one is ever written off again - whatever their age.”
Things to focus on
Promoting age-friendly employment practices, introducing paid carer’s leave, and pioneering employment support tailored to people over 50 would be welcome steps towards this.
Finally, both parties should also embrace preventative health policies in a similar spirit to the Prime Minister’s announced intention to increase the smoking age each year.
It was encouraging to hear Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting say that he wants a future Labour government to create the “healthiest generation ever”.
We welcome both main parties’ understanding of the importance of a preventative approach to health but as with all conferences promises; they are much easier to say than they are to deliver.