Sunday, September 20, 2009

... AND SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS

It comes to us all – watching our parents decline and die. I know it’s the Order of Things that one generation is taken over inexorably by the next, but it’s still one of the more depressing things about life when it happens. Sometimes the end is brutal, and quick. Sometimes, it’s still brutal, but long drawn out.

In my mother’s case last February, aged 91, she finally succumbed to Dementia which had been gradually destroying her for the best part of 13 years. Anyone who has been through this situation will know the problems all too well - the guilts and the fears we face as these diseases take their grip and extend their hold, turning someone you knew into someone you don’t know, and into someone who doesn’t know you, or anyone else for that matter.

In this country, it’s not made any easier by the obstacles which people have to overcome to get the State, in this case, the local Primary Care Trust Hospital to accept its obligations and fund the hospitalisation/Nursing Home costs which are an inevitable result of the way the disease takes its toll. When she died she had just about used all her money paying to keep herself alive – a quite inappropriate situation to be put in when you’re in the state she was in.

A couple of weeks ago, we ended up in the National Newspapers, and giving interviews to local Radio and Regional Television. We are fighting our (or more accurately) my mother’s corner to try to recover costs from our local Primary Care Trust Hospital for Nursing Home fees which my Mother spent as the Dementia which blighted the last 13 years of her life turned her into someone needing 24 hour Intensive nursing care.

When you strip out the smoke and mirrors, the rules are simple – if you end up in a Nursing Home because medically, rather than socially, you need the sort of care only they can provide, then it is, or should be, funded by the State. That seems to be the simple position. Except, of course, the State does not always seem to stand up and recognise its liabilities. It certainly didn’t in my mother’s case, or at least it hasn’t yet.

The really bizarre situation however is that, if we lived in Scotland, this would not be a problem. Care there for the over 65s is free, and not means tested, in Scotland. If she had lived over the border, then all the financial issues she has suffered would not exist. Weird, but true.

It’s only when you start to delve into this seemingly divisive state of affairs that you realise just how much difference there is between people in Scotland and people in England when it comes to the availability of what to most of us would seem mainstream social benefits to which all of us, or none of us, should have access.

My simple, untutored mind says that we live, like it or not, in Great Britain, a Union – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Monies are allocated annually by Parliament to cover social needs and you would like to imagine that the allocation of this vast amount of money each year would be controlled and dispersed by our elected representatives in a fair and equitable manner across the four countries in the Union. But when you start to poke and prod, what you come up with is not what I imagined I’d find.

I am not an expert on all this, but a little delving throws up a disturbing set of anomalies –

The British (not Scottish, British) Government allocates somewhere around £2,000 per head more to everyone who lives in Scotland compared to an English person. Given that there are about 5 million people in Scotland, this means a total of £10 Billion EXTRA given to Scotland.

Presumably because of this, the Scots are able to have a far more relaxed approach to the provision of expensive life-saving drugs than the English. Drugs which are available through the National Health in Scotland, can only be made available in England if you buy them yourselves. Unfair? You decide.

Scottish university students get free education, whereas in England, you have to pay your tuition fees. This applies even if the Scottish student is studying at an English university. Unfair? You decide.

Nursing Home care for the elderly in Scotland is free, whereas, as in my mother’s case, she has up until now, had to pay her own fees. Unfair? You decide.

If you look at State spending in Scotland, it represents almost 60% of all spending, a figure which is at the top of the list in Europe. And who pays disproportionately for it all – yours truly and 50 million other English people.

Now I have no quarrel with State spending as a concept, although I think overall it is way too high. But I can see no reason why a deprived area of English cities like Bradford, Manchester or Liverpool (and trust me there are some very deprived areas in those cities) has less of a claim on the public purse than Glasgow. But that’s how it is.

I also don’t think this leads to me being branded as a racist. I love Scotland. I am married to a Scot, and half of my family for the last 45 years have been from North of the Border. Mind you, just to balance it up, I think their cricket team is even worse than England’s, and also their cooking is not high up my list of World Class Cuisine. I mean when was the last time, apart from being in Scotland, that you voluntarily went into a restaurant specialising in Scottish cooking? Exactly.

The English and the Scots however, have always had a love/hate relationship with each other. Maybe it’s the fact that the Scots think they lost out in running the country in the 16th and 17th Century by the James/Mary Queen of Scots episodes, and like the Irish they’ve never forgotten it. It is an unpleasant fact that England perpetrated some dastardly deeds to all of them in the following two hundred years, but we’re 200 years further on now, and you’d like to think that the “Look what you did to us in 1745” style of argument was something that could be moved on from, sitting here in 2009. But it seems not.

So the devolution thing, particularly in Scotland, rolls merrily along. Since 1997, they have had their own parliament, (built, I suspect, at a 10 times cost over-run, using English money). The issue of “Scottish Oil” being the salvation of the Scottish economy seems to be the battle-cry of the Nationalists up there, but it seems that the maths just doesn’t make sense. If you hypothetically “give” them all the revenues from the oil – and you shouldn’t, because a proportion is in English territory – then they still would run an enormous deficit, which would require a severe cut in Scottish state spending to start to balance the books. And anyway, who paid for all the enormous investment to extract the stuff in the first place?

But why is it like that? This whole issue ends up back at what is known in UK politics as the “West Lothian Question”. To my untutored mind, this is a major political issue which seems never to get any significant airplay in the political life of England, and, for the life of me, I can’t see why. First asked by Tam Dalyell in Parliament in 1977 it simply, but rather devastatingly wonders -

“For how long will English
constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

If that’s not a good question, I don’t know what is.

The situation is actually worse that that for the following reasons.

It takes about 15% fewer votes to elect a Member of Parliament (to Westminster, London remember, not Edinburgh) for any Scottish constituency than it does for an English one. So the Scots probably have about 15 more MPs than they should be entitled to.

The Scottish MPs can vote on everything in the UK Parliament, whether the issue at hand affects Scotland at all. There have been serious and large issues, Foundation Hospitals being one, which only affect England where, if you stripped the Scottish MPs votes out, would have not been approved by Parliament. That’s a serious issue.

You might have thought that the Scottish MPs would at least have had the decency to abstain in such a situation. A few did and do, but many don’t.

We have two Scotsmen running the UK, and by inference, English affairs - Messrs Brown and Darling, both of whom are MPs for Scottish Constituencies. If it was to be decided that Scottish MPs should abstain from voting on purely English affairs, which seems eminently reasonable to me, then we would have the quaint situation where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain had no say on these matters. Perhaps the simple answer is not to have a Scottish Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Oh, and just as a by-the-way, you might also like to check on the ancestry of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the UK’s Prime Minister from 1997 until 2007. He talks with an English accent, but don’t let that fool you.

It strikes me that the Scots are quite happy sitting on their hands on this issue, since I’m sure they feel they’re getting a great deal form the 50 odd Million people South of the Border.

One of the most telling answers to this debate came from Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, in 1998. He said apparently that the best answer to the West Lothian Question was to stop asking it.

Just to understand where this particular gentleman is coming from, his full title is Lord Irvine of Lairg. Lairg is a small village in the county of Sutherland in the very north of Scotland.

So, in the hallowed words of Mandy Rice-Davies – “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.”

I’m not too sure how I’ve got round to this point – chewing over the structure of the UK Parliament, and, to me, the unbalanced and inappropriate power that Scottish people and Scottish MPs have over purely English affairs, and the way that no-one seems even to consider it to be an issue worth a decent debate at a political level.

Perhaps I should have moved to Scotland and then the issues my mother has had to face would simply not have existed.

4 comments:

Toque said...

Add your blog to the throng

Junius said...

I have read all the comments you have made before and they have made admirable sense - but you have made it personal for me, as I too have a parent succumbing to the disease.

Where I was previously intellectually committed to the concept of an English Parliament, your story had made me emotionally determined that such inequity must be changed.

I am sorry for your personal loss, but thank you for opening my eyes.

Whitenoise said...

An interesting situation, it shows me how little I know of UK politics. The disproportionate influence reminds me of our own arrangement with Quebec. They constantly threaten to leave the country and we constantly bribe them to stay.

lithgae dave said...

My father is 91 and has suffered from dementia for several years. I lost my mother several years ago as well so I can empathise with your situation. However, I just want to correct one point. My father is in a residential care home in Edinburgh and care homes in Scotland are definitely not free.

What you do get in Scotland is a Personal Care allowance of £153 per week which is designed to cover such things as help with dressing and personal hygiene. It does not cover the accommodation costs of care homes.

Although this allowance is not means tested, candidates have to be assessed by their local authorities and it is at their discretion that it is awarded. It took several years for our local authority to deem my father ill enough to qualify for this allowance.

Despite now getting this allowance my father still has to contribute nearly £2,000 per month towards the cost of his care home.