Sad anorak that I am, I spent much of Saturday catching up on my politics, including seeing the June 9th debate in the Scottish Parliament—a Labour motion on Caring for our Elderly. There was a variety of speeches from across the house, the tone of which was set by Nicola Sturgeon who spoke of a “broad consensus around the need to improve care for older people and to provide a system that works in all cases” that left me deeply bothered. I couldn’t work out why until I caught up with a couple of fellow regular bloggers, most especially Burdz Eye View, for whose pronouncements I have much time, even as I disagree with half of them.
Yesterday, she was claiming we need passion in our parliament and had good suggestions how to achieve that. What was, for me, missing in that June 9th debate was that passion, although, at first glance, you would not know it. Almost every speaker declared an interest in having worked as a carer or had an elderly relative in care. Jackie Baillie led off the debate, raising the recent Elsie Inglis care home scandal, shortcomings at Ninewells hospital and financial troubles as Southern Cross care homes—all valid issues.
But then the entire debate consisted of much wringing of hands in pious denunciation of such undesirable developments. With an estimated £4.5 bn p.a. spent on care for older people and projected increase of 84% in people aged over 75 in the next 20 years, we are approaching a financial brick wall, with the £1.3 bn annual cut in the budget simply acting as an accelerator. The debate expanded to denounce “tuck calls” or microwave meals or a number of expediencies used to service growing demand with dwindling resources. All speakers from all sides were quick to denounce short-cuts and shoddiness; but none had anything to say that could be confused with an option, let alone a solution.
Allowing for some maiden-speech stumbling, there was indeed passion on display. But it was the same passion shown in earlier parliaments, when gesture politics could be indulged in because money was available to be thrown at the problem. Between 1999 and 2011, council Adult Social Care budgets tripled, with NHS spending doubling from £5 bn to £11.4 bn. Those days are gone and won’t be back in time to rescue us.
Regular viewers of the Holyrood fish bowl would instantly recognise business as usual. Blaming Westminster scores political points but butters no parsnips; claiming carers’ work is worth £6 bn may be true but gets us no closer to funding it; being chary of profits being made from care is noble but somewhat after the event. There was no mention made of union activism or their likely hostility to any pay restraint, let alone cuts.
I did not watch for three hours but I did not need to. There may have been a political revolution at the ballot box this year but every contribution made here could have been lifted from any previous session of our Scottish Parliament: otherworldly, self-satisfied and devoid of even one pragmatic idea how our looming brick wall could be evaded.
Playing to the gallery is beguiling when convention has always done so; it carries no risk. But courage and a willingness to court unpopularity—neither much on display last week—is needed to stave off the otherwise inevitable: more abysmal shortcomings like Elsie Inglis, more fiscal wrecks like Southern Cross, more unions claiming pittance wages and, lest we lose sight of the point, deteriorating and unacceptable conditions for our elderly.