Just after Humza Yousaf announced his Cabinet in March, I published a newsletter article questioning the removal of the Minister for Older People and Equalities, a post created in 2018 by Nicola Sturgeon. This was alarming because it sent out a message that older people’s issues and rights were no longer a priority for the Scottish Government. The danger being that combating ageism, inequality and intergenerational friction would be hampered by a lack of focus within Cabinet.
That danger remains, and has not gone unnoticed, so in this article I aim to summarise some of the subsequent reactions from other Scottish commentators and older people’s advocates, including a very recent initiative by Mr Colin Smyth MSP for South Scotland.
First out of the traps was Ruth Wishart in the Sunday National. In a trenchant piece on the effects of ageism – inequality, neglect of pensions, inadequate social care etc. and the need for the independence movement to actively engage the support of older people as well as other protected groups Ruth states:
“Cast your mind back almost five years when the equalities brief was married ministerially to “older people”.
There was even a publication a year later – A Fairer Scotland For Older People – you know, the kind we have to make believe this fairer, greener Scotland is not a closed door when you hit an age barrier.
Yet, although there is a nod to all manner of interest groups in the new cabinet portfolios, the “older people” one seems to have fallen on the cutting room floor.
Such is the way of the political world, that unless someone is specifically charged with making something a priority, their attention will be driven to those parts of their brief specifically mentioned on the front cover of their ministerial folder.”
Well said Ruth!
The next major contribution came from Marion Scott in the Sunday Post). The article reports that sixteen major charities representing older peoples’ interests had written to Humza Yousef questioning the removal of the post of Minister for Older People. The letter, whilst congratulating Humza on becoming First Minister, did not hold back on criticism:
“ However, we are disheartened and extremely disappointed that the prominence of older people’s issues and its position as a named responsibility have been downgraded within the new Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees’ portfolio. The list of policy areas covered here are larger and more diverse than ever before, which gives us cause for concern about the amount of necessary focus older people will receive.
We feel this is a backward step on the progress that has been made, and reduces the importance of older people’s issues at a time when Scotland’s population is ageing and facing a growing number of serious challenges. “
The Sunday Post article also points out that older people’s issues have now been packed into a bulging portfolio: “… new minister Emma Roddick has to look after the interests of asylum seekers, mainstreaming equality, faith and belief, social isolation, human rights, traveller families, LGBTI, the disabled, the displaced, and refugees, as well as older people.“
The sting in the tail is that before his election Humza Yousaf was contacted by Age Scotland with apparently just one ask – to retain the Minister for Older People. The response? Placatory words about how much good work has been done and how much more remains to be done about older people’s issues, together with a commitment to “consider” Age Scotland’s request.
In essence the Post article is focusing on similar concerns to myself and Ruth Wishart – losing ministerial responsibility, burying older people within a large cluster of other ‘equalities’ groups and losing sight of the importance of age and ageing in Scotland.
Finally, Ben Borland in the Scottish Express. The Express reported that the legends include Barbara Dickson, Gregor Fisher and Barbara Rafferty. The aim of their call is for the appointment of a Commissioner to champion older people in Scotland, along the lines of exiting posts in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The force behind the proposal is Independent Age and Debbie Horn the organisation’s Scottish Public Affairs and Policy Manager was quoted in the Express saying:
“Every day, we hear from older people across Scotland who say they feel ignored and like their voices are not heard. We know that many are in financial hardship, making their life a daily struggle, yet this issue is seldom discussed.
“We are incredibly grateful to Barbara, Greg and Barbara for supporting our call for an Older People’s Commissioner in Scotland and shining a light on poverty in later life.”
Whilst this initiative is calling for a commissioner to be created rather than reinstating the ministerial post, it is in line with the other articles in challenging the Scottish Government and the First Minister to take older people and our ageing population much more seriously.
Colin Smyth MSP has now taken the proposal of a Commissioner for Older People a step further by launching a Member’s Bill on 13 June to establish an Older People’s Commissioner for Scotland. In his brief presentation he sets his proposal in the context of our ageing population, highlights the ageism and inequalities experienced by older people and outlines the main responsibilities envisaged for the Commissioner. Mr Smyth made no mention of the former Minister for Older People, which might seem odd and provide food for thought given the degree of concern this has provoked. The consultation will run till 12 September 2023.
Clearly this political development will need to be followed up and more information obtained about what might be involved. Craig Dalzell and I aim to get involved in the detail and will report progress in future newsletters.
The case of the missing Minister is clearly not going away and the spread of protest across such different media as the National, the Sunday Post and the Express should wake Humza, his government, and his Party up to the seriousness of the matter. Evidently Colin Smyth’s initiative has raised the stakes for Humza Yousaf, adding political as well as media and interest group pressure. Arguably dropping the Minister for Older People has created an opportunity for the Labour Party to take up the substantive issues of demographic ageing and force it onto the Holyrood agenda. Emollient words from the First Minister won’t be enough to address this scale of public concern.
Obviously, the police investigations into SNP Finances and the policy setbacks on Indy Ref2, GRR, DRS and so forth will be taking time and energy. However, the interests of older people and the demands of our ageing population should not be relegated to the bottom of the agenda or shuffled between Ministers and civil servants busy with other portfolios. Also, a failure to engage with these issues weakens the case for independence, by sending out the message that ageing and older people don’t really figure in the map of an independent Scotland.
All the points and proposals Craig Dalzell and I made in our book about Scotland’s ageing population – All Our Futures – remain on the table and offer a constructive way forward for the Scottish Government. We are happy to discuss them with the First Minister and would welcome an opportunity to collaborate with Ruth Wishart and others with an interest in this key policy area.
We’d also appreciate any comments and ideas from the Common Weal support.