Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: May, 2017

Crying into my beer about social care for the elderly

Over a pint of beer with a friend in his eighties, I wonder what my own declining years will bring.  The staff at his local know my friend well and pull his favourite beer but he no longer has any memory of having set foot in the pub ever before. He enjoys the outing and says   that he is happy with his lot.

Whenever  I struggle to call a name to mind, I fear I might be on the same slipway myself.  For a man of my age, heart disease and cancer are the most likely causes of my demise. But the longer I dodge the bullet, the more likely that dementia will set in and that is what haunts me most.

I jokingly point to the care home at the top of my street as my final destination but now find it is closing down allegedly because the council does not pay reasonable care costs. If the care home industry collapses through lack of funding, will be there be anywhere for me to rest my ageing bones with any degree of dignity?

So I was pleased to see Theresa May proposing to tackle social care costs, in that early and innocent phase of the election campaign before it was overshadowed by the terrible events in Manchester.  She then enjoyed such a commanding lead in the polls that she could risk losing the support of the mighty elderly voter. In her manifesto, ( or was it the Conservative Party’s?)  the triple lock was broken, the winter fuel allowance means tested  and a plan for funding end of life care  proposed. But the scheme was withdrawn three days later.

I was pleased to see someone take an initiative on a topic that had been consigned to the filing cabinet. The Commission chaired by the economist Andrew Dilnot had recommended in 2011 that those with the means to do so should pay for their social care but that personal  contributions should be capped at an agreed level. Thereafter the state would pay.

David Cameron accepted the findings but delayed  implementation until  2020. Under the current system, anyone  with less than £14,000 receives free care and those with more than £23,000, do not which, Dilnot said recently, creates both inequality and a fair amount of cheating. Us oldies want to know where we stand and to plan if we can.

The Conservative manifesto appeared to be more generous by meeting the cost of care for everyone with assets of £100,000 or less. But it actually pushed more of the cost on to the cared for by including the cost of their home and the cost of care at home as well.

The announcement received support from some unlikely quarters. Polly Toynbee and Will Hutton both welcomed it because it unlocked the vast pent up property fortune  that has fallen into the lap of most  pensioners through the housing boom.  The ’dementia tax’  stopped  the  ‘intergenerational injustice’ of the hard pressed younger generation, who cannot afford to buy a flat,  meeting the costs of the older generation living in their mansions.

But think further and you realise this scheme is an iniquitous lottery. At present one in five of  us will need long term care and  the numbers are rising partly because we are living longer and avoiding other death traps. Those unfortunate to suffer from a degenerative disease  will pay the cost. They will lose their savings and their children will not inherit. Those dying from cancer  will be treated for free and pass on their riches to the next generation. This is a long way from the universal provision of the welfare state.

And of course, apart from the principles of how to pay for social care, there is the mess of low wages for care workers, the dependence on E U migrants to staff the homes and the inability of local authorities to pay a reasonable rate. My beer drinking companion is able to pay his way and receives good care but life in a state funded home in years to come sounds like the modern equivalent of purgatory.

Sir Andrew, rightly ennobled for his work, is unrepentant. There’s plenty of money, he says. “ We may choose not to afford it but the notion that we can’t afford something, given what has happened to our income is striking and quite surprising, and doesn’t strike me as correct.” He and others propose different versions of taxation on all pensioners and their estates that would spread the load.

At least Team Theresa tried to come up with a solution and spin it into a vote winning one.  Now she is in retreat. There is talk of more consultation but expect the social care crisis to continue and to get worse. The Kings Fund says the cash shortfall will be £2bn by 2020.

Pensioners  have seen off  this half hatched solution over a weekend without even rising blood pressure.  Voters will worry whether someone who can change her mind so quickly and spectacularly can handle a long Brexit negotiation.

If I was Theresa May, I would be worried at my falling ratings. If I was Andrew Dilnot, I would despair and I am resigned to whatever the fates may deal me in future days and hope you will take me out for a pint of beer.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 30th May 2017




Dont be afraid to put pacificism at the heart of foreign policy

“I am not a pacifist” Jeremy Corbyn  insisted last week.  A pacifist is seen as the ultimate party pooper – someone misunderstood as cowardly, unpatriotic and beyond reason.

In fact, pacifists are about the bravest  people around putting themselves on the line to campaign for peace. They have been executed, imprisoned, beaten up, arrested and ostracised for their beliefs. Pacifists are however unlikely to win the floating vote.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke eloquently about pacifist practices in an under reported speech at Chatham House last Friday. The media  was obsessed with  manifesto leaks that day and nobody is much interested in foreign policy anyway.

The Leaders speech urged Britain to “walk the hard yards to a better way to live together on this planet”. Labour  would place far more emphasis on diplomacy, non proliferation and multi lateral disarmament and be far less inclined to rush to arms and put troops on foreign shores. He cited the disastrous intervention in Libya as a failure of Conservative foreign policy and  evidence that the war of terror was failing.

He quoted President Eisenhower’s warning of the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex  and said there would be no more hand holding with Donald Trump. A Labour government would not be afraid to speak its mind.

In an article on the same day, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry evoked the late Robin Cook’s search for an ethical  foreign policy that would stand up for human rights, support emerging democracies and keep climate change at the top of the agenda.

In the leaked manifesto, Labour commits to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, maintain the 2% commitment  on defence spending and renew Trident. All in all, Labour proposes a thoughtful and different kind of foreign policy that also tries to keep the two wings of the Labour party happy.

Meanwhile no word from Boris Johnson on foreign affairs apart from a flat refusal to pay the Brexit bill and  a belief that the Russians would interfere to help Labour because “Putin would rejoice to see British defences weakened, Britain’s foreign policy become less active, to see us detached from the United States.”. He is being kept well up the back of the Team Theresa bus for the time being.

It was brave of Jeremy Corbyn to make a set speech on foreign policy because it exposes him to the suspicion that he is soft on defence and would not press the button to order a nuclear strike. World leaders would have catastrophically failed if this situation arose, he said, and  the results would kill millions and devastate the planet.

Indeed, it is alright with me if Corbyn does come out as a pacifist. He has voted against every use of armed force apart from Cyprus and East Timor.  But he held back to say that he would use military action under international law as a genuine last resort and that the safety and security of the British people was his first priority.

I find Corbyn’s hand wringing endearing and reassuring . I would not want to live under a Prime Minister who was confident about proceeding with nuclear war, intent on sending out the bombers or deploying the troops. By contrast, the Conservatives now say that would use a deterrent first strike.

Having only recently  written off Jeremy Corbyn as party leader and potential prime minister in this column, I find myself warming to him as the election campaign unravels. On the Six o Clock news every night, Jezza can be found sitting on the classroom floor reading to a child  or walking the  factory  floor in a pair of safety glasses appearing to enjoy himself and running the risk of looking silly.

Judged by the news clips, the contrast with Theresa May could not be greater. She stands to attention  in front of a few rows of well dressed Conservative supporters, reiterates her mantra and pours scorn on Jeremy Corbyn.  Her handlers will not cut her any slack.

On her raid into  Labour heartland in the North East,  Mrs May’s  one and only stop  in Northumberland  was at Eschott Airport?  Why not visit Newcastle International Airport and make a statement about airport taxes? I wonder if the empty acres and good road connections around the private airfield at Eschott are about  to be revealed as the new regeneration hub of the region?

She sneaked in the side door  at Linskill Centre in North Shields  to avoid the public outside with their placards and spoke to another select few including her great fan Laura Kuenssberg. Why not visit the much grander Memorial Hall in Wallsend or Sage Gateshead  to get a feel for the regions past and present triumphs? Why make the journey at all if you are not going to meet those “ordinary working people” you want to vote for you?

The Prime Minister is missing the opportunity to expound her vision for the country and her policies for the new government . Although she called the election over leaving Europe, Brexit is the elephant in the room. She may be heading back to Downing Street after the election but Theresa May is losing the campaign. Her lead dropped eight points last week and there are still three weeks to go.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 16th May 




Save me from strong and stable leadership

Did Theresa May coin the phrase on a mountain  in  Wales or did it come to mind  as she stepped  out of Downing street a fortnight ago today to spring her surprise election? Beware of anyone who tells you they are strong.

Or were darker forces at play?  Is ‘strong and stable’ a carefully constructed coda worked out to appeal to voters and churned out at every opportunity. It has been calculated that a Conservative politician mentions  this quality every eighteen seconds. Constant repetition  will eventually allow voters to appreciate strengths of the leader and only news junkies like me are sick of it already.

Does it stack up? Has Theresa May shown much S&S so far? Only last week, the government was forced by the courts to publish its long delayed air pollution strategy. Air pollution causes 64 premature deaths  a day. This was an example of a government running scared of the motor industry and of car owners, like me, who mistakenly  thought diesel was better for the environment. That’s cowardly and collusive leadership.

Only a couple of months ago, the courts also ruled against Theresa May’s plans to trigger Article 50 which smacked of  arrogant and authoritarian leadership.  It is no wonder that she is being referred to as Kim Jong May.

Then there was the U turn on national insurance contributions for the self employed and the amazing volte face in calling a general election and ditching the well intentioned fixed term parliament Act. Shame on the Opposition for going along with it.

This deceit has tarnished the image of the vicar’s daughter and National Trust member who is on the side of the ordinary working family. A more devious and calculating character is emerging who wants to banish legitimate opposition and, as the Daily Mail puts it, ‘crush the saboteurs’.

The most serious lack of leadership has been the hapless way in which the government   has handled Brexit. It has lacked a plan and failed to listen to its European partners. It really is fake news for Theresa May to proclaim  that the country is united behind her in wanting to be bumped out of Europe.

But even if, for the sake of argument, I allow the claim of strong leadership,  is this the direction in which I want to be lead? This is a government cutting welfare benefits, building grammar schools, reducing green energy subsidies, scrapping the Human Rights Act, cutting inheritance tax for the rich, renewing Trident, failing to honour commitments to child refugees and bringing back fox hunting. It is not dealing with the housing crisis or the social care crisis.

There is talk of the Tories relaxing the triple lock . We pensioners have been  let off too lightly because our votes matter. There is a hint from the Chancellor that he may not renew the silly ban on tax increases. We middle classes have been wrapped in cotton wool for too long as well. Both good ideas but will the manifestoes tell us where the money will be coming from?  Don’t hold your breath.

The Labour Party has been churning out policies day after day. That is what politics used to be about. They may not capture the imagination but they take sensible steps on housing, education and jobs. Keir Starmer made an honourable attempt to explain Labour’s position on Brexit but could have given more hope to Remainers and allowed space  for a second referendum.

These are extraordinary times and I am actually attracted by the so called ‘coalition of chaos’ if it means that different parties get together to return members who will challenge the draconian view of Brexit that a May government seems bound to pursue. Caroline Lucas should be waved back in.

Theresa May does not give us her vision for the future or even a set of policies for the next government. Her one new idea of capping energy bills was pinched from Ed Miliband. She will not debate in public or meet real voters. But she will provide strong and stable leadership, which, as everyone knows, is her way of telling us that Jeremy Corbyn is not up to the job.

When  Jezza was elected the first time around, I was excited that some of my more cherished political ideals might be fulfilled. This is the man who has been on the right side of every major argument for the past quarter century, from apartheid to nuclear weapons, arms sales, railway ownership, animal rights, cannabis and even the poor old royal family. He is the street protestors hero.

I am disappointed by his inability to manage the Labour Party and sorry that he is lukewarm about Europe.  The Tory jibes are despicable but funnily enough, a “muddle headed mugwump” is not far off the mark. Jeremy Corbyn is an honest, thoughtful, independently minded vegetarian who is likely to mull things over and unlikely to push a button in haste.  He cares about real people, refuses to slag off his opponents and is sartorially relaxed, These are the qualities I look for in a leader.

But more important, he is doing his best to lead a party in the direction I want to go and it is policies rather than personalities that matter.

Published in Newcastle Journal Tues 2nd MayMay wlaking