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Keswick Convention: Statistician is optimistic about ageing UK

Should we be so concerned about the ageing of the UK population? No, according to leading statistician Andrew Dilnot, who gave the first of this year’s three Keswick Lectures

Should we be so concerned about the ageing of the UK population? No, according to leading statistician Andrew Dilnot, who gave the first of this year’s three Keswick Lectures.

“It seems to me very peculiar that we talk again and again about the burden of ageing. The alternative to the burden of ageing is the burden of being dead. Our earthly lives are good things: we have work to do while we are here. It is a marvellous thing that people are living longer.

“We easily forget how flexible we can be. It is true that the number of those who are aged 65 or more is going to rise over the next 20-30 years. But it has also increased massively over the last 100 years. And that hasn’t led to our economy and society falling apart.

“It hasn’t been a bad thing that there are more older people. In 1901, there were 61,000 people aged 85 or more. Now there are one and a half million – 25 times as many. It is an astonishing change – which we have adapted to.

“We have found appropriate ways round it, we have developed pension regimes, health services that provide the right sorts of health care … this astonishing change that we have experienced in the last 100 years  –  far more dramatic than anything we are about to see – has been, by and large, coped with.

“We shouldn’t be surprised. Part of the creation mandate was that we were put here to look after the world. There are lots of examples in the biblical world of the way in which God’s people have changed – going to Egypt, the exile, rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem.”

In answer to the argument put forward that the country simply cannot afford to have such a huge number of elderly people, he was blunt. Pointing to the enormous increase in income that has characterised the last 25 years, he said: “This suggestion that we cannot afford something as a country is just the wrong way of describing it. We may not choose to do something but we can certainly afford to do so.”

We might, he said, simply need to spend less on something else.

And a lot of the care that is on offer is excellent, he added. “Of course we hear stories of bad care, of care going wrong, but there is a huge amount of astonishingly marvellous care, delivered by loving, dedicated people, sacrificing their time and their energy to look after other people. Some of that care is provided by family and friends, but much of it is care provided in formal settings, by people who are being paid.

“Much of it is touching and a marvellous example of the love people have for one another – and that is the love that we can celebrate, because we know it is a reflection of God’s love for all of us.”

Turning to the subject of the way social care for the elderly is funded, Andrew Dilnot pointed out that it made no economic sense whatsoever to care for the frail – but that this was not the reason why people believe it matters.

“We do a huge amount that makes no sense at all if we think that financial self-interest is what is driving the world. It does not make the economy work more efficiently, to look after the care of an elderly person who is unlikely to go back into the paid labour market. We do it because it is right … these actions reflect God’s love for every single individual.”

Looking at the current system for providing social care, he described it as “a muddle”. Part of the problem, he went on, is the fact that the need for social care as we age is “the only big risk that we all face and about which we can do nothing. The community as a whole, the state, doesn’t help us until we have almost completely run out of money.  From a purely secular point of view, it’s clearly nuts and it makes people very, very frightened.”

And from a Christian point of view as well, he said, it was more appropriate for risks to be shared.

“The biblical record again and again tells the story of God trying to help people to set up appropriate communities. I think it is clear that community, making it possible for individuals not to be on their own when they face enormous risks, is part of the way we need to set up the world.

“The current situation leads to enormous fear – if you are getting increasingly frail and may need care, you want to be able to plan, to organise yourself. But at the moment, you can’t do that because you have no idea what the worst case scenario might be.”‘

Looking at the other risks individuals face, he pointed out that insurance covers the risks of owning property, and driving cars, where people join together to pool the risk. But with social care, this does not work – and so the present system, whereby those in England who have assets above the value of £23,250 (including their house) get no help at all – desperately needs replacing.

“We have a system that positively encourages people to cheat, to give their assets away to their children, so they appear not to have any wealth when it comes to the Means Test. Any system that encourages cheating is surely a bad system.”

Nevertheless, he is optimistic. The Commission reported in 2011 and recommended that a cap should be put on the amount any one individual should have to pay for their own social care in old age. And while the amount of that cap is still being discussed, the principle has, he says, been accepted.

“In many ways we have the state reflecting Christian values… We can do better.” he said.

  • The Keswick Convention runs for three weeks each summer, and this year takes place from 14 July to 3 August.

Photo: Mark Rushton/Keswick Convention



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