9 Jan 2013

Government ‘not prepared’ for ageing population

Jeremy Hunt and ministers giving evidence to a House of Lords committee are warned that proposed NHS and social care reforms are not enough to accommodate the demands of an ageing population.

Government 'not prepared' for ageing population (R)

In its final day of taking evidence, the committee of peers said it was not convinced that the government was moving fast enough to bring about much needed change.

Armed with a raft of statistics about the rate of growth of the number of over 60s, the committee chair Lord Filkin said that ministers’ focus was too much on short term fiscal matters, instead of long term structural change, and added: “We’re doubtful that efficiency savings will be enough.”

NHS reform

He rejected the idea that the newly established clinical commissioning groups (CCG) “by themselves, 200 of them,” are going to drive structural change. “The policy of the department seems to be ‘let the mushrooms grow – stand back’,” added Lord Filkin.

Peers told Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Pensions Minister Steve Webb and Care Minister Norman Lamb, that previous evidence delivered gave the impression of a lack of integration between the relevant departments responsible for older people’s care – and also said they had been unimpressed by previous evidence given by Treasury civil servants.

Read more on respecting your elders: why the ageing population is a good news

Working for longer

The committee questioned ministers on whether steps should be taken through the tax and benefit system to incentivise healthy older people to carry on working for longer.

Pensions minister Steve Webb said abolishing forced retirement had already gone some way towards making the final stage of people’s working life more flexible.

But in a hint of what to expect in his forthcoming white paper on state pensions, Mr Webb said he is still considering a move away from the cliff edge of a fixed state pension age and said any change would incorporate a mechanism which links the pension age, to longevity.

“I think biggest cultural social shift will be when the day that the men’s pension age is no longer 65,” he said. “There isn’t this day when you retire, but it’s a much more fluid process.”

Read more: Is it time for a ‘revolution’ in the way we age?

24/7 care

Much of the hearing was taken up with questions about round-the-clock care provision for elderly people. Peers on the committee, which was set up to consider public service provision in the light of demographic change, said that the current system put too much pressure on hospitals, which was expensive and inadequate for older people’s needs, because there was no 24-hour alternative.

“We have a structure and system that really isn’t fit for purpose any longer,” said Baroness Blackstone. “A large number of old people end up either in hospital or neglected in some way in the community, because we haven’t worked out what the relationship should be between the NHS, social care and care in the community.”

Jeremy Hunt said that peers painted a “bleak and challenging” picture, but disagreed that the current pace of change was not fast enough to support older people’s needs.

The health secretary repeated his pledge for Ofsted-style inspections across the NHS and said that the element of greater flexibility at a local level within the wider health reforms, would go a long way towards improving services for the elderly.