This analysis is based on a quick and selective read of the Programme for Government 2023 (PfG). It is particularly important since one of Humza Yousaf’s first acts as First Minister was to remove the post of Minister for Older People and Equalities from the Cabinet. Responsibility for older people devolved to Emma Roddick MSP as Minister for Equalities, Migration, and Refugees. Ms Roddick reports to Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice.
Given this very recent change in government responsibilities this PfG gives Humza Yousaf and his colleagues an opportunity to show they are on the side of older people and attach priority to their rights and issues.
What does PfG contain regarding our ageing population and older people’s rights and issues?
This can be focused by two basic questions:
(1) Is there a specific section on demographic ageing/older people?
(2) Are there specific measures relating to older people?
First Minister’s Foreword
There is nothing specific in the FM’s Forward regarding demographics or older people’s issues, and no distinct sections in the rest of the document.
Arguably the positive messages about economic growth, equality and social cohesion can be deployed to suggest that older people will benefit along with everybody else. However, it remains an open question as to how that would be achieved.
As our ageing population is a pressing time focussed issue, on a par with eradicating poverty, managing climate change, and achieving economic prosperity, it is disturbing when it doesn’t get explicit attention from the First Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. The worry is that demographic analysis is not being given serious consideration when developing policy and proposing specific measures for government.
Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice’s Section
Since ministerial responsibility for older people comes under the Social Justice portfolio you would expect something specific and in fact there is a relevant statement:
“…we will continue to work with partners to advance equality for those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. This includes engaging with the Older People’s Strategic Action Forum to identify and develop solutions to barriers faced by older people. (P28).
Arguably this is saying little more than that the Scottish Government will continue to operate within the established strictures of UK equalities legislation. The Older People’s Strategic Action Forum was established under Christina McKelvie’s time as Minister for Older People and has met with Emma Roddick since she took over responsibility. Therefore, it is early days to see what emerges, however given the mention in the PfG we can surely look forward to meeings, reports and perhaps debate in the Parliament in the coming months. Certainly, it will be essential to review progress by the end of this calendar year.
Towards the end of Ms Somerville’s section there is reference to introducing a “…landmark Human Rights Bill…” and committing to consulting on “…a mainstreaming strategy, as part of our commitment to embed equality and human rights throughout government and the public sector”. (P.32). This is one to watch as a potential channel for raising older people’s rights and issues, particularly as older people’s human rights figure unambiguously in international statements and standards on human rights.
Other Cabinet Sections
Given the nature of Cabinet government it is understandable if Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers concentrate on their portfolios, and this may explain the apparent lack of attention to demographic ageing and older people’s issues in the various sections of the PfG.
However, it seems to me that several opportunities for more cross-cutting and joined up thinking are available. For example, how might technological change, healthy ageing, labour market reforms and business growth be linked to our ageing population? The answers would entail an explicit recognition of demographic changes affecting work, pensions, housing and health and social care.
When we had a Minister for Older People it was an explicit part of the remit to engage with other Ministers and ensure that issues were addressed within and across portfolios. That focus seems to have been lost in the 2023 PfG and it is unclear how it can be re-claimed.
Pensioners and Pensioner Poverty
Scanning through the document these terms did not jump out at me, so apologies if I’ve missed them. If they have been missed out of the text that seems a serious omission. Debbie Horne from Independent Age wrote a relevant article “Our old people in poverty can’t afford to wait: FM can take action now to help”. Using individual examples to illustrate statistics from an Independent Age survey, Horne called for a pensioner plan in the PfG aimed at ”…halting and reversing the worrying upward trend of financial hardship in later life.”. It doesn’t look to me as if her challenge has been heeded, so it will be interesting to hear what she has to say next.
Commissioner for Older People
Given the loss of the Minister for Older People from Cabinet when Humza took over as FM, the PfG 2023 is not a reassuring statement for older people or an encouraging acknowledgement that demographic ageing is a vital facet of Government strategy.
This underlines the importance of Colin Smyth, MSP’s proposal for an Older People’s Commissioner for Scotland to advocate on behalf of older people and take up relevant issues. Craig Dalzell and I have written about the proposal in previous Newsletters, and I suspect we will do so again in the coming months as Mr Smyth progresses his proposal.
Overall, there seem to be no new ideas or policy directions apparent and a lack of clarity in relation to population ageing and older people’s issues as determinants of government policy. In essence there is still no sign of a comprehensive approach to these matters from the Scottish Government. This should be a source of alarm for a Scottish Government facing a UK General Election in the next year or so when every vote will count.