The Case of the Missing Minister – Part 2

Bill Johnston

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.

7 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Minister – Part 2”

  1. Another example of the lack of competence and governance shown by the Scottish Government in the area of Equalities. There is no doubt that Scotland should have independent Commissioners for Children, Disabled People, Women, Older People, LGBTQ all sitting within the Scottish EHRC.
    The idea of mainstreaming these within a single portfolio is what has led to the current lack of focus and the rise of right wing attitudes towards these groups. In the 1980s I had real hope we were on the right path now I just despair.

    1. florian albert

      ‘There is no doubt that Scotland should have independent Commissioners for Children, Disabled People, Women and LGBTQ’.

      I, for one, would disagree. Most Children do not need one; ditto Older People; ditto Women. Those who do are nearly all among the least prosperous in Scotland. The Scottish Left has abandoned class politics for identity politics. This change has left the Scottish Left where it is today – irrelevant.

    2. Bill Johnston

      Hi Andrew. We’ll be looking more closely at the pros and cons of a Commissioner in the coming weeks/months.


  2. Norrie MacPhail

    “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.“
    What is missing from this article in terms of perspective is the numbers of people affected within these categories. We do know that the percentage of older people and lack of provision for them is increasing substantially, yet no numbers were provided. Presumably Colin Smyth will have done so in his Member’s Bill.
    You also quietly suggest that the Labour Party could learn from this and gain votes from a substantial chunk of the electorate, which should wake up the SNP to actually develop an overall strategy for modernising Scotland.
    We can but hope!

    1. Bill Johnston

      Hi Norrie,

      Thanks for the suggestion about statistics. Craig Dalzell and I aim to develop more commentary on the issues raised by the Commissioners proposal, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks/months.


  3. Ian Davidson

    Bill. I agree with your substantive argument. However as the previous MOP had zero to say about the total trashing of older people’s rights (i.e. right to life!) during covid, I am not convinced that, in this weak (Govt office for personal loyalty) Scottish administration, it would make much difference. The Greens are holding the balance of power and it is self evident that they hold the rights of some (very small numerically) minorities to be much more important than others. Older folks? Not a Green priority? Rarely mentioned, not their demographic?
    The Covid Inquiries, at UK and Scottish levels will hopefully expose (though not necessarily resolve or improve) just how little value was placed on the human rights of older folks, esp those unable to care for themselves. Sorry if this is a downer but until we admit how bad things are, we are kidding ourselves if we think that giving another sycophantic MSP drone a Ministerial promotion and title will really change things!

  4. Bill Johnston

    Hi Ian,

    I think the question of how far political parties see older people as ‘their demographic’ is spot on! The upcoming SNP gathering in Dundee may provide some pointers.

    Gerry Hassan has a useful article in today’s National on Sunday, setting out five points for Labour to take on board in anticipation of a surge in their support. Although age-based issues doesn’t seem to figure, inequalities does, so perhaps a thread to follow up?

    You mentioned the record of the former Minister for Older People and Equalities in relation to older people’s rights during the Covid emergency period and this got me looking back at some articles I wrote for the Newsletter back in 2020 when ‘older peoples rights’ were on the proverbial shaky peg. For example I’d forgotten that Boris Johnson had opined that we could all expect to lose a number of our older loved ones. He seemed quite un-phased by this if I remember rightly. Hopefully the Covid inquiry will explore how that prediction went and what PM Johnson did about it. I’d also reported a number of powerful international statements warning about ageism distorting Covid responses to the detriment of older people’s rights, so some useful benchmarks to measure Scottish and rUK performance.

    In the meantime although Humza has dispensed with a dedicated Minister for Older People, it will be important to see exactly what progress had been made up to that point and how any ongoing work is being managed. Perhaps the current interest in establishing a Commissioner for Older People will give a focus for those questions.

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