Speech: Government must end the scandal of Britain’s ‘silver scrap-heap’ – Royal Leamington Spa, 2013

by Liam Byrne | 24.06.13 | in: Pensions, Universal credit, Work and Pensions

Thank you very much Lynnette. I’m really glad to be here in Royal Leamington Spa.

I’m here because I’m after your advice on one of the hotter topics in politics. How we fix our broken social security system.

Lots of people in London say that people aren’t interested in politics.

That’s not my experience.

In fact, if you ever doubt people’s interest in politics, just start a debate about welfare reform.

You will find your audience doesn’t need much warming up.

And that’s what I’ve been doing all over Britain for the last year. I’ve seen first-hand there’s a big market for Ed Miliband’s message that the ‘system isn’t working’.

As Ed said, people’s confidence in the system is shaken.

And they’re running out of patience with a government that promised so much and has delivered so little.

We’ve heard so many promises. How the Work Programme would get everyone a job. How Universal Credit would mean everyone was better off in work.

Instead, we’ve got a Work Programme worse than doing nothing and Universal Credit is descending into universal chaos. Meanwhile the benefits bill is rising £20 billion more than planned.

We can’t go on like this.

I don’t think there’s anyone quite as angry as Britain’s over 50s.

The people who have spent a lifetime raising families, caring or working and paying into the system for over 30 years, only to find when they need help there is almost nothing for them.

Those born in 1963 were born into a turbulent, exciting world.

The Beatles released their first Number One album, Please, Please Me.

President Kennedy was assassinated.

The Profumo scandal shook Britain.

Now as these workers enter their 50s, they face a turbulent, stressful world of the ‘silver squeeze’.

Many care for parents and grandchildren. Many are still providing board and lodging to children who can’t afford to move. Prices are going up, wages going down and long term unemployment is spiralling out of control.

Saga estimate that:

Informal childcare provided by grandparents is now worth £7.3 billion.
Nearly 3 million over 50s still have their adult children living at home with them – and the age of these children is 27.
And the cost of living for the over 50s, has risen substantially more for the over-50s than the overall population since the crash
No-one can say Britain’s over 50s haven’t done their bit.

And in this world of pressure, what the over 50s are looking for is stability, certainty, and a job.

The chance to put to good use a lifetime’s experience.

Yet, right now, long term unemployment is hitting the over 50s harder than anyone else.

Those who have paid in the most face the longest on the dole.

Nearly half of all unemployed people in their 50s have been unemployed for longer than a year.

In fact, the over 50s now spend longer on the dole than any other age group, an average of 32 weeks.

Out in Reading last week, Labour’s Victoria Groulef brought together some residents over 50 in Reading West.

Many now face, what one lady there described to me, as a journey to hell and back.

They lose their job. Perhaps they become disabled. It takes ages to find more work. Bills mount up.

And so they face the frightening prospect of retirement on a small pension with whacking great huge debt to pay down.

In fact the head of the local Age UK told me that 40 per cent of the calls they receive are from older people struggling with debts they fear they’ll never pay.

It’s terrifying.

Yet people thought they were paying in for a very different deal.

What really sticks in the craw is that the only help on offer is an order from the Job Centre to fill in twenty CV’s a week. That’s it.

Now on average, some-one in their 50s, who has worked all their life, has paid in over £100,000 in National Insurance.

Out in Gloucester with Labour’s Sophy Gardner, a man said to me:

“It makes you wonder why we bothered paying in all those years; they don’t bother to look at our skills. They tell us to apply for anything. It’s just banging square pegs into round holes”.

I’ve heard stories like it all over Britain.

In Harlow, where I held a round-table with Labour’s Suzy Stride, one man told me with a shaking voice how he’d been laid off from United Glass after an industrial injury.

Still in his 50s, with teenage kids, he still felt young. “I’m terrified”, he said, “that I’ll never work again. But I want to work. There’s still loads of things I can do”.

Yet, all he was offered was a long-drawn out eleven month court battle to claim the disability benefits he thought he had paid in for.

And in Birmingham, when we asked Yvette Cooper to come and meet with a big group of Labour members, we heard powerful stories about the challenges that older women face. Often older woman have already spent a career raising a family.

They’ve often still juggling care responsibilities. Yet, it’s hard to get training or advice or good, flexible part time work that pays a decent wage.

I don’t think we can go on like this. It simply isn’t fair. And it’s a huge waste of our national talent and experience. Britain’s army of unemployed over 50s have between them 3.5 billion days of life experience.

I think social security should offer more for those that chipped in most either caring or paying in National Insurance.

Our most experienced workers and carers have earned an extra hand. We should make sure there something better for when they need it.

That’s why we’re looking at just how we put the something for something bargain at the heart of social security reform, starting with a new deal for the over 50s.

We are looking at fresh thinking from around the world where there’s a lot more help for those that have paid most in if they fall out of a work.

The reality is we’re falling behind social security systems around the world in countries like Germany, Japan, Canada and America. They have far better systems for supporting older workers back into jobs.

In Germany, they have higher rates of Jobseekers Allowance for workers who have paid more in, so job searchers don’t have to take the very first thing that comes along out of sheer desperation.

Japan offers specialist offices for older job seekers with placement services to help older job-seekers with specialised support for those who used to be in managerial, professional or technical positions (‘Talent Banks’).

Canada is exploring training grants for older workers looking to develop new skills. Businesses can claim up to £9,500 to train workers for an existing job or a better job at an eligible training institution.

In America, US States are pioneering new services for older workers such as specialised training centres for older workers in Indiana; moving lower-skill older workers up career ladders in Baltimore; and employer engagement in Vermont to develop new strategies that focus on the needs of employers and the opportunities presented by an ageing workforce. All developed under the Obama administration’s Aging Worker Initiative (AWI).

If we get it right, there’s a huge prize. If we offered more help finding work for those who’ve paid in for 30 years, we’d have more tax-payers to help pay down debt faster.

If we raised the employment rate amongst our over 50s to the level enjoyed by Japan, there would be 438,000 more people in work, and £3 billion in extra tax flowing into the Treasury.

People in Britain are saying loud and clear that they think the system is broken and the Government is simply failing to fix it.

That’s why it’s time to end the scandal of Britain’s silver scrapheap.

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