Why pensioners matter to ministers

Pension folder tag Pensions is a genuine source of controversy in the referendum debate

So there it was, indisputably a bus stop. Not, in truth, an uncommon sight, even in Edinburgh where the coming majesty of the trams seems to sweep all else aside, at least in public perception.

But this bus stop was in the reception area of a day care centre for the elderly in Halfway, to the east of Glasgow. (Yes, that's its name, Halfway. Connected to Cambuslang.)

Why, I inquired gently, was there a bus stop inside, with a clearly delineated signpost? Did it get much trade?

It was explained to me, equally gently, that it was placed there for a client of the centre who regularly voiced concern about catching her bus. Her anxiety levels would grow as she repeatedly fretted about getting to a bus stop.

So the centre created a bus stop, just for her. In reception. Result? A calmer, happier, day care client.

Similarly, the centre has a reminiscence room - filled with ancient furniture, a wonderful wireless of vintage stock and sundry physical reminders of days past. For those with incipient dementia, who find the modern world challenging, it can be a chance to relive and revisit a more familiar, less frightening yesteryear.

Huge approbation to those who care supportively for the elderly. Particularly loud plaudits for those who devise such imaginative schemes to make life more tolerable and interesting.

The message is that elderly people are not units to be shuffled, not generic bands of population - but people who require distinctive treatment and care.

Nurse helping elderly person The Scottish government believes Scots merit distinctive treatment on pensions, in the light of the fact that Scottish life expectancy is lower on average than south of the border.

A comparable message was delivered by Nicola Sturgeon, and by Shona Robison, in her new ministerial role championing pensioners' rights, as they visited the Halfway centre.

Life expectancy

Scotland, they said, merited distinctive treatment with regard to pensioners, particularly in the light of the fact that Scottish life expectancy is lower on average than south of the border.

That, say Ms Sturgeon and Ms Robison, means Scotland is already "short-changed" - in that pensioners here draw down less from the state by the simple fact of limited longevity.

Not, on the face of it, a particularly appealing argument in that it draws attention to poor Scottish health whereas the SNP pitch is more commonly one of confidence and aspiration.

But, to be clear, the ministers insist they are doing everything in their power - through policies on tobacco and alcohol for example - to improve Scotland's life expectancy. It is important, they argue, to avoid making things worse through pensions' policy.

The Scottish government's White Paper on independence envisages that the state pension age would rise to 66, as in the rest of the UK, under independence. But Ministers counter UK plans to accelerate the increase to 67. Under independence, they'd review that.

Pensioner poverty

In response, the UK government says efforts to tackle pensioner poverty have had most impact in Scotland. (Again, that's a mixed message - derived presumably from the fact of pre-existing poverty in Scotland.) Treasury ministers argue that the broad tax base of the UK is better equipped to fund pensions for the future.

Why the focus on this issue? One, because it is a genuine source of controversy in the referendum - as distinct from some issues which are less than critical. Two, because it deals with the real economy and real social provision.

And, three, because the elderly - while they are all distinct individuals - tend to share one characteristic: a propensity to vote.

Brian Taylor Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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