Speech for Age Concern London, 1.12.2003
Jean Lambert, Green Party MEP for London
Thank you very much for your kind invitation for me to launch the report: Making Age Work for London. I found it an extremely interesting read, not least because I have both a personal and a political interest in the contents.
There is a growing interest in the European Union (EU) in older people. This is driven by a number of factors: demography being the principal one. The balance of Europe's population is changing as the birth rate drops below replacement level (1.2% in Italy, for example). It is estimated that by 2007, the oldest group of workers (the 55-65 year olds) will outnumber the youngest (16-25 year olds) for the first time.
This is raising 4 questions:
- how will the needs of the labour market be met?
- How will we maintain our social security systems?
- How will we be able to provide secure, adequate state pensions?
- How will we provide accessible healthcare? (This one is not only connected to demographics but also demand, although the Commission has already issued a Communication on access to care for the elderly)
Part of the answer to these questions lies in keeping people in work longer (what is known as raising the effective retirement age, which is NOT the same as raising the State Pension Age). I am grateful to the authors of the report for their clear explanation of the terminology they are using.
Targets have been set at EU level (at least 50% 0f all 55+ by 2010, an increase of 12%) and the UK has set higher targets as part of its Employment National Action Plan, as we are already beyond the EU targets at 62% (2nd highest after Sweden). The UK target is now 75%.
As Commissioner Bolkestein put it: Governments must sell voters reform packages that will almost inevitably mean workers have to "pay more, work longer and get less."
Not an attractive message.
It is true that, given the
choice, many workers would retire early if they have a sufficient income. However,
it is also true - as this research shows - that many older workers wish to continue
in work (some quarter of a million in London)but may find it difficult due to:
prejudice and discrimination - which links to and may reinforce
- a lack of formal qualifications in a work culture which demands ever higher qualifications (I sometimes wonder what happened to a gain of the feminist movement in counting other experience as being equally valid)
- domestic commitments, as carers for grandchildren or older relatives or both and in which they may poorly supported, if at all, although it is estimated that at national level such care provides £5.7 billion worth of services. Given the very worrying projections outlined in the report for NHS staffing, this care becomes even more significant
- a change in priorities which may mean a greater reluctance to travel long distances to work or a desire to work shorter hours and perhaps volunteer more
Now, London may be unusual in both many parts of the UK and the EU in that it has a proportionately larger population of people aged 20-29 and a smaller proportion of people over the age of 65.
Of those of us over 50, London has 1.9 million out of its population of 7.1. million. Of that 1.9. million about half are over the state retirement age. Some 290,000 of that group (about 30%) live in poverty, after taking in to account the cost of housing. So, about one in three pensioners in London live in poverty. In Inner London, the richest region in the whole of the EU, 36% live in poverty and that is the highest proportion in the whole of the UK.
Generally a higher proportion of pensioners in London live alone than elsewhere in the UK (34% in outer London and 43% in inner London, compared to 33% nationally). London is the most ethnically diverse region in the UK (28.8% of the population compared to 7.9% of the national population). We can also see considerable difference between London boroughs in their profile concerning age, ethnicity and employment. So how does this all fit together?
How can this work, asks the report, in the best interests of the individuals and of London?
Well, we have one clear advantage. The GLA has a statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity irrespective of race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation and religion. (Section 33 of the Greater London Authority Act of 1999) This echoes Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty, the basis for new anti-discrimination legislation coming on-stream this week. Given that GLA responsibility, it was a great shame that the recent presentation in the EP of the GLA Equalities Strategy was extremely weak on the issue of age, and I pointed this our in my capacity of Co-president of the Parliament's Inter-Group on Ageing. This attitude is something that needs to change.
It is clear, as the report recommends, that we need a clear strategy on Making Age Work for London.
It is urgent that we support those that wish to continue working and we have legislation originating from the EU coming on-stream in 2006 in the UK (elsewhere in the EU, it should be earlier!). Given that much employment in London is sourced through agencies, how will they learn about the requirements of this new legislation: how will they respond to employers who ask them to discriminate before possible employees are even put forward? What is the age pattern of recruitment staff in these agencies? How are they trained?
How will training be provided for older workers (and those who are currently in charge, but will soon be in this category)? What are the respective responsibilities of employers, unions, government and individuals (I count LSCs as government). IT training is an obvious need but there are others as we look at the changing job profile in London.
How can we ensure that those jobs pay a living wage, rather than a minimum wage for workers in London? Look at the sectors which tend to employ more women and ethnic minorities and we can see that we are not dealing with the pension problems of the future or the poverty problems of the present. The report looks at the hospitality sector but there are others which are well documented - cleaners, for example.
The report's insistence on the need for a more polycentric approach to planning in London chimes well with the criticism made by Greens of the Mayor's Plan for London, which concentrates on the City and Central London as the main focus of job creation and employment policy. Given what we already know about many older workers, their preferences, responsibilities and their likely income, it is essential that we also pay attention to local economies, employment and the provision of services, including transport. This will also be of value to people who have already retired as it recognises the value of local networks and support systems - both in the sense of active involvement but also when assistance is needed.
The role of the Boroughs as providers and managers of services also becomes crucial in meeting the needs of diverse groups in terms of housing, social provision and recruitment.
If we are looking at breaking down stereotypes and creating a more inclusive future for older people in London, we should also be looking to London's creativity and its research skills. The Central London School of Art, for example, has done ground-breaking research in to design and age (it's revamped zimmer frame could be a design classic).
We have to remember that today's older people are not necessarily the cosy-cardigan and slippers stereotype. The oldest have lived through eras of great political change: they have seen the rise of a social welfare system; many of the women have worked and are working. Many are children of the sixties, with a different view on relationships and independence. Many will have come as migrants to the UK. Some have considerable disposable income; many will be highly educated. We expect our needs to be met with dignity not charity, as part of a social contract with government and we expect a certain choice in how we live our lives.
This requires serious commitment, research and resources. Older people want to be socially included and we want our contribution recognised. This report makes valuable proposals, which I, for one, want to see put in to action.