Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Friday, 19 February 2010

Old Families

February half term comes at a doldrums time of year - Christmas is over and Easter is yet to come. Shrove Tuesday manages to make a bit of a culinary impact, but isn't often a much-planned-for 'event and social gathering'. The days are lengthening but there's rarely enough daylight to feel guilty about leaving the garden to slumber for another week or so, and for many people Spring cleaning either doesn't happen any more because either they don't have dirty open fires, it isn't necessary because their place is always immaculate, Spring  hasn't  started yet, or they can't see well enough to notice the dust.

The break from school comes at a time when no exams are imminent, so younger members of the family can be coaxed away from their computers and out of their rooms long enough to be told how much they've grown 'since last time' - which is always excruciatingly embarrassing, but dealing with it politely is an essential part of growing up.

Yes, that's right, we Rigbys have been doing the rounds of the far-flung parts of Britain catching up on all the family gossip - at a time when there aren't easy reasons to avoid being sociable. It's good to meet new arrivals and see little ones growing into adults and run a quick check of who's got what 'family trait', but it's also sad to see older relatives becoming increasingly frail at a rather alarming speed.

All of these people 'did their bit' during WW2, either on the battlefield, at sea, in the air or, even if they were still yet-to-be-invented teenagers, were 'keeping the home fires burning' - which is something few of them can afford to do any more.

Each of the grand or great-Rigbys (and/or their spouses) is fiercely independent, they all live in their own homes, of varying size and quality, refusing to either move in with their immediate family or into a more formal residential setting. Not one of them wants to even consider claiming what 'benefits' might be 'theirs by right', and not only because of the myriad of complicatedly intrusive forms they think they would have to fill in - it's because they don't think 'claiming benefit' is something they should do. It's pride.

Their generation, they say, don't take from the state unless the situation is dire, and none of them would admit to feeling desperate, none are willing to put their hands out for help and risk the humiliation of being turned away because once they were foolish enough to have carefully saved up enough money to put down a deposit on their, now deteriorating, home and make sure there was enough money to pay a mortgage for 25+ years - and the taxes, and the insurances, and the local taxes/rates.

These people recall snow drifts as high as a man and Jack Frost's patterns inside bedroom windows. They remember power cuts and petrol rationing, they have read and seen reports of the dire state of our electricity generating system caused solely by this government's refusal to acknowledge the need for forward planning.

They remember the time before the Berlin Wall was built, and some have pieces of that wall on their mantelpieces.

Quite a few older Rigbys were staunch Labour supporters, but not now, and it's quite odd to know why - it's because they've learned we get gas from Russia - the old Communist  and Cold War enemy that will, to quote one individual, "... do anything to get a toe hold in Europe" and "... will cut off the gas if they want to invade". Their fear is almost palpable, and disconcerting too, because they almost speak in whispers to say what they need to say and then, very quickly, change the subject.

They don't understand what's happened in the last few years because they as children they were raised to, "Be seen and not heard" and were taught to "respect their elders". They're unhappy with the way they can be pushed to the back of the queue and ignored at a time when they're most in need, and the men don't understand why all of their sex is branded a potential child molester when nothing would be further from their mind.

These people had to leave school whilst still in short trousers or because, well, because their school wasn't there any more because a bomb landed on it, and by the time it was rebuilt they were too old to go back. They remember food rationing, and how their parents did without to make food go further and they know very well that it's the elderly who suffer most when it's cold - because they remember what happened to their own grandparents - so they're more than a little scared for their future, although won't openly admit it, not in so many words.

Even though there was a welcoming cake or plate of biscuits and the necessary cup of tea in a cup with a saucer, almost each one of the senior Rigbys has, this winter, been forced to make the economic decision to either keep their home at a comfortable temperature or maintain a decent diet of cooked meals. There's no happy medium because they're all on small incomes, and have increasingly high bills to pay, and what little savings they managed to put by during their working life are vanishing rapidly because interest rates are so low and they themselves are incapable of keeping pace with new, better, accounts the banks and building societies might decide to  organise. When they try to discuss their difficulties at the premises of either building societies or banks they are either given leaflets written so small they're impossible to read, are told to go online, or are advised to pick up a telephone and navigate a lengthy user-unfriendly press-button process. Nobody wants to help them face to face, especially not the elderly men.

It's sad to realise that many of those in either power or authority have forgotten the older generation in the rush to modernise or change, and now these older people  have even more worries because they have learned of plans meaning that, if they leave assets of more than £23k, their 'estate' will be taxed to pay for their 'elderly care' - when they already have to pay proper wage rates for any home support they might need.

I wonder what they do in Scotland?

The current elderly generation have been sold short. They've lived through terrible times and have worked and been taxed all their lives. They are frightened to think that, in order to reduce a luxurious 'estate' to less than £23k, it's necessary to dispose of your home and any valuables at least 7 years before death.

Few have the advantage of knowing their death date in advance, which is why such a disgusting tax will hurt young and old alike, and more especially the old who only want to make sure there's a bit of cash and a few trinkets to pass onto the next generation - their final gift to their family.

So much for 'Labour' being the political party of the working (wo)man!

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