Sunday, 18 May 2014

You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old

The centenarian American comedian, George Burns, once said “You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old” – something he proved by performing well into his 90s while chomping on his trademark cigar. 

The first task that I had on being elected to a second term as mayor was to choose my charity for the year. The over-60s is the fastest-growing group in society – there are more of us living longer than ever. Ageing is not an illness, but it can be challenging. And so I have chosen as my charities Age UK and Dementia UK. Age UK state “We believe in a world where everyone can love later life. Age UK is here to inspire, enable and support older people to help people make the most of later life.”

The older generation are the last that would want or expect a “hand-out”: their lives have epitomised self-reliance and taking responsibility. Many pride themselves on their independence and fear becoming a “burden”. Those of us who have yet to reach this stage of our lives must respect this – but at the same time we must not use the dignity of old age as an excuse for our inaction. We should stand up and speak out especially for those for whom old age is marked by exclusion and poverty, and also protect the long-term interests of future generations. We must always remember that we work best as a community, and that every one of us will spend most of our lives dependent on others.

Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean," said the little old man.”

Our mutual dependency is not a burden but a strength. 

What in practical terms can we do for one another? Well, in the short term there are some easy steps. We must look out for one another. We should take a moment from our busy schedules to consider those around us. A simple phone call, a quick chat over the garden fence, can represent a lifeline to a world that for some is fast retreating. We already have a network in place – Neighbourhood Watch – that does a superb job at safeguarding our property. What a difference it would make if we could protect in the same way those in our community who may be at risk.

As many as one in four pensioners live in poverty. I would like to see the introduction of a Citizens' Pension to replace the current basic state pension and any additional top-up benefits, such as the demeaning pension credits and winter fuel allowances. Unlike the current system this would be unconditional, given as a right of citizenship and not subject to means testing. They will not be restricted to those people who have paid National Insurance contributions, which, for example currently leaves many women without a proper state pension due to having an incomplete payment record. This will not restrict an individual's right to continue working – there are many who wish to work well beyond the official retirement age and should be able to do so – and any additional earnings will be taxed just as they would for those below the pension age.

I would like too to see a supplement paid to pensioners living alone as well as for those with disabilities and special needs. This will include payments to cover the costs of residential care, should this become necessary. Elderly residents should no longer be forced to sell their homes in order to pay for such care, as these supplements will not be subject to means-testing.

There is much to be done. Let’s tackle together the challenges of old age so that we an all love later life.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Myth busting

Here I hope to set the record straight with some answers to the myths being spread by politicians intent on grabbing the headlines, but with little regard to the facts. With thanks to Tom Williams from Green World:

1) Immigration is damaging the UK The idea that the UK can't cope with current levels of immigration is overplayed. Immigrants make up just over 10 per cent of Britain's population –lower than the USA and Australia – and UK asylum claims are 33 per cent below the EU average. More importantly, immigrants have brought huge benefits to the UK, contributing 37 per cent more to public finances than the cost of services they use, according to a University of London study. Government figures show that other EU nationals are far less likely to claim working age benefits than UK nationals, with no evidence of systematic or widespread 'benefit tourism'. Elected Greens will speak out against the toxic rhetoric on immigration and support migrants in the UK. We will oppose spot checks for EU citizenship and the proposed requirement to carry ID cards, as well as moves to water down access to public services. 

2) The EU is too bureaucratic and is taking away our national sovereignty Wonky bananas is the right wing press's favourite example of 'EU bureaucracy gone mad'. In just the last few months, we've been fed false claims that it's seeking to impose laws banning high heels for hairdressers, UK flags on meat packaging and olive oil on restaurant tables. In reality, the EU is not full of bureaucrats; it employs 33,000 people to administer for the 28 member states -that's one per every 15,000 residents and 92 per cent fewer than the British Civil Service. The EU does have a serious democratic deficit problem -with power weighted towards the unelected European Commission. But withdrawing from the EU is unlikely to bring back national sovereignty. Norway -which opted out of EU membership in 1972 -has still implemented three quarters of its laws, without a say in any of them. Its citizens also pay 79 per cent of what British citizens pay for membership (in 2010, the average EU citizen paid only 67 cents per day to finance the annual budget -not bad considering the benefits that membership brings). It is better to be in the debating chamber, arguing for an EU that works for the common good. 

3) Poverty doesn't exist in modern Britain Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. There was a 170 per cent rise in numbers turning to Trussell Trust food banks in 2012/13 compared to the previous year. Half of the people using food banks do so because of problems with the social security system – the very system meant to make food banks redundant. Work is no longer a route out of poverty either. Wages have stagnated and the price of food is rising by 3.5 per cent, meaning that minimum wage can't cover life's essentials. What's more, one in four of us live in unacceptably cold homes – a stark reminder that poverty does still exist in the seventh richest nation in the world – and that it renders people unable to fulfil basic human needs. 

4) Action on climate change isn't necessary because its effects have been overstated This is perhaps the most dangerous myth in modern-day Britain. Despite almost complete consensus in the scientific community and unprecedented weather events. there are still many who deny the existence of climate change. including our own Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Four of the five wettest years recorded in the UK have occurred since 2000. a chilling indication that the planet is changing faster than we ever expected. A recent study predicted severe flooding across Europe will double by 2050 The Green Party has a 10-point plan on flooding that Includes Increasing spending on defences, creating a new Cabinet-level committee on infrastructure and climate change resilience and redirecting billions of pounds of UK fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks to assisting the victims of flooding. 

5) Further austerity measures are the only answer to Britain's current financial woes We are living through the worst recovery from recession in over 100 years, and many are yet to feel any benefit. Unemployment is going down -but only because of part-time, temporary and self-employment work. Last year, wages fell to 2003 levels. As many as 158,300 people were wrongly found fit for work by Atos in a botched attempt to make the most vulnerable foot the bill. And the UK is still set to borrow £200 billion more than forecast when the Coalition took office. Yet George Osborne has promised austerity until 2020 and beyond, meaning further cuts, including removing unemployment and housing benefits for under-25s altogether. And Labour's two Eds promise not to reverse a single cut. From protecting public services to investing in the Green New Deal, Greens would do things differently. 

6) Greens' energy policies would make the lights go off A package of insulation and renewable measures could save the average household £166 by 2020. And, as the recent 'Zero Carbon Britain' report stated: 'We have the technology to power ourselves with 100 per cent renewable energy, to feed ourselves sustainably and to leave a safe and habitable climate for our children and future generations.' It's a far better option than gambling on fracking, which even Osborne admits wouldn't bring energy prices down.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Listen to the Victims

Recent cases of maltreatment in a few private care homes prove that "in order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing."

This became clear to me just a few years ago, when I was unfortunate enough to work on the Ryan Commission Report into Child Abuse. While the report catalogued abuse dating back a century in institutions in the Irish Republic, the stories told and the lessons learned were equally applicable this side of the Irish Channel.

The many reports of widespread abuse stretching back through the decades were of course harrowing, and at times the first-hand accounts were near impossible to read.

But what really left a deep-seated feeling of anger was that such abuse was known about, and yet nothing was done to protect the victims.

The children themselves tried on many occasions to bring their torment to the notice of the authorities. They were not taken seriously and were ridiculed. Indeed on occasions they were blamed for bringing their suffering on themselves, and any childish prank or indiscretion was used to justify their mistreatment. Those who have endured such abuse know how much it means simply to be listened to and believed. But when your pleas fall upon deaf ears, you sink into silent despair.

And yet the evidence was there for all to see. Little was done to conceal the sometimes wretched condition of the children, the perpetrators were so confident they would not be held to account. Why did those in a position to do so fail to intervene? Often it was because the abuser held a position of such standing and respect that their involvement in such behaviour was inconceivable. But more importantly, to admit it would be to upset the ‘natural order of things’, to disrupt the status quo and create a power vacuum. For them, to their eternal shame, that was more intolerable than the abuse. And so it continued.

Though we have come far, recent cases involving young and old alike suggest there is more to be done. We must start by listening.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Amnesty International recently invited me to introduce their panel discussion, “Women and Their Human Rights”. For me it felt like returning home. Long before I became involved in party politics, Amnesty represented my first political awakening – the realisation that freedoms we often take for granted at home were for many people the world over no more than distant aspirations – something that needed to be fought for. It was a brutal realisation that there were brave men and women – indeed children – willing to pay – or more accurately prepared to pay – the ultimate price for freedoms long ago gained in this country. That someone could pay with their lives in pursuit of the most basic rights was almost unimaginable – but that was and remains the shocking reality. As Mae West said, perhaps in a different context, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often”. And that is something Amnesty does so well – they shock us, keep us on our toes.

Very quickly my thinking matured and I came to realise too that, once gained, such freedoms need to be treasured – you should never let your guard down – complacency delivers us into the hands of evil men. We should be careful of what we are prepared to surrender to those who claim to be our protectors. Never stop questioning. Always keep challenging.

Since those distant days of the 1970s when I joined Amnesty – wrote letters, signed petitions and occasionally demonstrated – we have come a long way. Strange as it might appear, how far we have come can perhaps best be demonstrated by looking back – with our hands over our eyes and through the gaps in our fingers – at some of the tv programmes that back then passed for comedy – the attitudes that were then commonplace, and that today have rightly been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But while we have come a long way, much remains to be done. And that is why I am so glad that, after more than half a century, Amnesty is alive and kicking, holding firm to the belief that It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. And few areas remain as dark, and in need of a shining light, as “Women and Their Human Rights”.