Free care and bus passes for elderly ‘may have to be means tested’
Means testing may have to be introduced to ease the massive costs of universal services such as free personal care and bus passes for the elderly, MSPs have been warned.
But the danger of elderly people being portrayed as a “terrible burden” for the country’s finances must be avoided, a meeting of Holyrood’s finance committee was told yesterday.
MSPs are looking into the impact of an increasingly ageing population on public finances.
The cost of services such as free personal and nursing care, prescriptions, eye tests and concessionary travel was almost £900 million in 2010/11 – and Scotland’s pensioner population is set to increase by 54 per cent between 2011 and 2031.
Robert Wright, professor of economics at the University of Strathclyde, questioned the need for all pensioners receiving benefits, regardless of how well off they are.
The academic said it was “ridiculous” that his fellow university professors over the age of 60 should be getting free bus passes and indicated that the free personal care policy may need to be re-examined.
“Most people who have the potential to make a contribution to their care when they are old really should be expected to,” he said.
“I think there’s going to have to be more means testing of this whole set-up.
“It seems to me that what’s going on in other countries is that they’re not treating every single person – regardless of income or their personal and family situation – the same, particularly on constant services.”
However he did endorse the wider benefits of the free personal care system, which he said was a cheaper option than caring for older people in hospitals.
Scotland is facing a significant increase in the ratio of pensioners to people in work from 32 per 100 at the moment to about 38 by 2035.
But the danger of elderly people being seen as a “terrible problem” for the country’s finances was set out by Edinburgh University academic Professor Charlie Jeffrey.
Prof Jeffrey, who compiled a recent report into public policy on the elderly, said: “We were in danger a decade or more ago of painting older people as a terrible problem, as a fiscal calamity that faces us all.
“I think we have quite successfully moved to a different conception of older people as active citizens making a valuable contribution to our society.
“There is a worry that the current situation of fiscal tightness at all levels of government in the UK and more generally will draw us back to the fiscal calamity.
“I think we should do what we can to avoid presenting the problem in that kind of way.”
Challenged to set out what the scale of the challenge will be, he highlighted key Scottish policies.
He said: “We can get fixated on the headline costs of things like free personal and nursing care without thinking of the costs we would have to expend if free personal and nursing care were not there.
“The other thing is the economic value of informal economic activity, in particular, caring; caring for infirm partners but also caring for grandchildren, the latter enabling the parents of those children to engage in economic activity which they might not otherwise be able to do.”
Prof Jeffrey’s report states: “If it is legitimate to target policies in some areas like fuel poverty on to the most disadvantaged why is it not in other areas?”
Such initiatives could be criticised as “extending a subsidy to those affluent enough to pay for services themselves,” his report adds.
Scotland’s population is projected to age more rapidly compared with the UK as a whole.
George MacKenzie, of the National Records of Scotland, told the committee in a written submission that the population may have reached its highest ever level in 2011, exceeding the 1974 level of 5.24 million.
MSPs also heard from Dr James McCormick, Scotland adviser for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Carol Jagger, a professor at Newcastle University.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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