Have we Old uns any Real Choice

Last month I presented a paper to the “Birmingham Partnership Board for older people” a body which was set up following a working party some five years ago, which I chaired in Birmingham on ” Implications of an ageing population”. At that meeting I spoke about “grey power” in relation to the election and commented that May 5th made it clear that those of us of pensionable age certainly had the highest percentage of polling. I make no comment about the result, except to say that I predicted a majority of 70 for HM Government and was not far out. I thought that the paper might well be of interest to fellow readers of The Oldie

Birmingham is taking the matter of ageing seriously, but our generation need to take control of our own lives. However there seems to be a tendency by the Government, by the NHS, by privatised services and to some extent the media to use the term “choice” as a blanket covering for almost everything. There has always been freedom to eat one’s meals at the Ritz, but not if your sole income is the state pension. There is freedom to travel but not if you are suffering from arthritis. Choice is limited, especially as you grow older.

When Tesco, Asda, Wal Mart, Sainsbury and the other superstores drive out the neighbourhood shop what freedom will be left to the eighty-year-old widow without transport to do her shopping?

H. M. Government tells me I have health choice. but when my doctor says the best bloke for your hernia is Mr. X at the City Hospital, who am I to suggest that Mr. Y at Queen Elizabeth is the better person? I have no knowledge of their abilities any more that my doctor would have as to whether his heating system needs an impeller pump or a new boiler. A degree of trust is built in to the normal human being and most of us trust the NHS and the family doctor. The citizens of Kidderminster were not given a choice about their hospital closure and they therefore revolted.

Most of us want independence, but sometime it may be that we can no longer live in our own home. If that time comes I would personally prefer the Council or a co-operative to look after me, rather than relying on Mr Profitt or Mrs Grabbit who are running a rest home for old drop-outs. If that is not possible then the regulatory role of the City Council comes into being to make sure I am not ripped off.

Our generation needs services and those services tended in the past to be supplied by bodies over which we had some control. Birmingham City Council used to run water, buses, electric light, and gas, and half the health service, but they are now run by faceless quangos and there is no real choice. Are there many “Oldie” readers who believe that competition and choice have made our railways better run than the French or the Spanish?

The “MARKET” is no solution to deal with social problems, but there is a growing tendency for Government and public bodies to follow that idea. And yet they do not follow it through completely, for the central body then imposes “monitors” and “auditors” to check what the local bodies are doing and those checkers seem to always be accountants or economists who know the PRICE of everything and the VALUE of nothing,

It is all to do with the growing idea that we are all now “customers”. This implies that we all have money in our pockets. When I travel by ‘bus and train am a passenger. When I see my doctor or dentist I am a patient. When I shop at my local co-op I am a member. I am a citizen of Birmingham not a customer.

Of course the “market” has a place. In the1980s the late Nicholas Ridley was complaining about the way we got round Government regulations in funded the building of the International Convention Centre and the rebuilding of our city and he said to me “your trouble is that you think like a capitalist”. My reply was “Comrade, I live in a capitalist society where multi-national companies think that profit is king, but there is nothing wrong with profit in Marxist terms if you regard it as surplus value. It is what you do with it that matters”. He lit another fag, shook his head, and walked away.

The “market” is not the answer to everything and the various firms and organisations who phone us up with free this and free that are – for the most part – out to “con” us. The rubbish that falls through my letterbox is not to my benefit and aids global warming. At 88 I treat them with the contempt they deserve and in dealing with public and semi-public bodies tend to kick them in the backside when they deserve it and congratulate them on the few occasions that they do a good job,

It is up to our generation to be abrasive, even if we are written off as grumpy old men.


4th July 2005