THE BLOG

Fairness in the Face of Frugality

20/03/2013 09:29 GMT | Updated 19/05/2013 10:12 BST

So budget week is upon us, and with it will come the inevitably predictable proclamations and protestations about who will be hit the hardest.

We will see the same figures offering familiar viewpoints - stark warnings about stifling growth, the need to kick-start lending, and importance of getting NEETS into work. There will be debate about red tape and sticking tape; corporate tax, inheritance tax and people who don't pay tax.

The same targets will be in the firing line - the Chancellor, the banks, the governor of the Bank of England. Big business must support small business; innovation unlocks growth; Britain can export its way out of financial crisis.

The same victims will be held up to demonstrate where the state is failing. Single parents. Gagged nurses. Mums who cannot afford to work. Workers who cannot afford to retire. Students who cannot afford to study. Companies who cannot afford to pay. Young people who cannot afford to buy.

But while these debates rage, one segment of Britain's population will be conspicuous by its absence. A segment of 10 million people who, while not exactly gagged, have told us that they aren't being listened to by policymakers; that their opinions are overlooked.

Stannah's latest Silver Census of those aged 65+ reveals that 68% of older people think that the government doesn't have their best interests at heart or is disconnected from their generation.

We asked them how they feel about the predicted cuts to universal benefits currently offered to older people as a means for sharing the fiscal burden - because everyone has to do their bit. But this generation, which has already done its bit hundreds of times over, through war, recession and social conflict, across seven, eight, nine decades, is losing patience.

We found that 76% of older people think proposed cuts to universal benefits are unfair, rising to 89% in the North East. Over 40% think other areas of government expenditure should be reduced first, and even when asked about the policy proposal to means test winter fuel allowance, half of those questioned were vehemently opposed.

This isn't because these people don't want to contribute to society - it is because they feel excluded from the conversation. More than anything, our research reveals that in Britain, older people feel at best ignored and in many cases deeply disenfranchised.

Many have already been severely affected by cuts to local social care provision and the rising costs of living - often forcing them to leave their own homes. This situation must not be exacerbated by the threat of losing those benefits that support healthcare, well-being and independence.

There is light on the horizon - because when you take time to explore these attitudes, you find that, as with so many policy decisions, it is the fear of the unknown rather than the specific details that causes the greatest concern.

The people we spoke to are all too aware that cost savings are required now for Britain's long-term health, and that of their grandchildren and generations to come. But while the media focuses on the pensions shortfall faced by today's workers in decades to come, we were concerned to see that almost half of the over 65s also believe their funds will run out in their latter years. They expect the state to fund more of their long-term care than any other source, be that home equity or their family. And so most accept it is reasonable to consider cuts to some benefits - including free bus passes or TV licences.

The really big concern comes when people consider losses to winter fuel allowances or medical prescriptions, which interestingly is the biggest worry for those aged 65-74 who are fighting to maintain their independence.

In tough economic times it is of course fair that everyone contributes. But these insights show us that there cannot be a single, 'one size fits all' approach to cutting the deficit. For the Chancellor to take Britain with him on Wednesday, he has to make decisions which, while painful, are felt to be fair.

Most importantly, he has to demonstrate that those paying the price feel engaged in his decision-making - and that decisions are taken with a clear consideration of the strains already felt amongst some of Britain's most vulnerable people.