Bishop of Derby takes part in debate on demographic change in the UK

On 17th October 2013, Independent Peer Lord Filkin led a take-note debate in the House of Lord on the Report of the Public Service and Demographic Change Committee ‘Ready for Ageing?’ The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, took part in the debate, focusing his remarks on the important role civil society play in supporting the elderly. He also raised concerns about the language used to talk about the elderly and highlighted the very significant contribution played by older people in society.

Bishop of DerbyThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and his colleagues on the Select Committee for introducing such a comprehensive and expert report. I shall pursue the theme mentioned of the contribution of civil society.

My first point is about the language that we use and the signals that we give out. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, talked about the importance of a public debate. It is easy to use language such as “retirement”, which indicates something negative, about stopping and ceasing to contribute. In the diocese where I work, we have 200 clergy who are retired; 80% of them make an enormous contribution, not just filling in but front-line, active contribution to the life of the church. Some cultures use the word senior rather than the word ageing. We must be very careful how we frame the debate. I invite the Minister to comment on the language that we use and the signals that we give out, so that it is not about a problem of decline and desperation but celebrating life at different stages and in different ways.

My second point is about the breadth of health issues that need to be considered. In the city of Derby last year, I organised something that was called the Redfern Commission. A number of us as commissioners invited people to come into a space and talk about the challenges facing citizens in the present context: the lack of investment, declining local authority resources and such things.

People from Age Concern raised two things that had not occurred to any of us on the commission. One was the lack of sexual health advice for older people; it is all targeted at younger people; but with changing lifestyles and changing relationships, there is an urgent need for people to have access to information about sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health. The second area that was brought to our attention was the importance of recognising depression as people face loss at various stages and the need to set targets, as in other areas of health, for depression as people get older. Those were two things that came out from the commission that surprised me. I invite the Minister to comment on the breadth of how we look at health issues. Some big things, such as dementia, take all the space, but we may need to be more refined in talking about what health involves.

My third point is to talk about care with a small ‘c’ in the Government’s response, the civil society contribution. In the Church of England, more than 8,000 of our parishes are actively engaged with work with people who are growing older—seniors. The great thing is that you have more than 8,000 intergenerational resource centres, where people of all ages are engaged in home visiting, meeting loneliness and prolonging a quality of life and conversation that gives health and vitality to people. The committee proposes a commission about the care system. I endorse that proposal, because I think that there is an urgent need to look at how all that informal, civil society caring, which is intergenerational, with a lot of energy put into it and which is making an enormous difference. How can we more systematically embrace what is a highly organised effort in all those 8,000-plus parishes across the country into a system that is also trying to best target the use of financial resources and professional expertise?

I have two final points. I remind your Lordships of the fragility of values. When I am in London, I stay in Putney. As I was walking in Putney this morning, I passed a huge office block. Over the door a sign says, “Volunteers overcoming poverty”. I looked closely; the block is empty, virtually derelict. We have these aspirations but then they drift away. We must recognise something that the church is passionate about: in an age where people approach things from the point of view of, “I want to safeguard my rights”, we must be bold enough to talk about the discourse of duty to neighbour. That is vital to turn around the social atmosphere and sense of commitment in an age that, for understandable reasons, is obsessed with the rights of the individual as a person.

Finally, a great friend, colleague and scholar who was a professor at King’s College London, Christopher Evans, lived to be well over 100 and died fairly recently.

People kept asking him, as he went through the journey and had various health issues, what it was like getting older. He said that the key is perspective: “You have to understand that whatever happens to you as you get older, you’re simply waiting in the departure lounge”. There is a much richer and more exciting journey for all of us, whatever age we live to, and that needs to frame the debate too.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): …My noble friend Lady Tyler spoke powerfully about loneliness among the elderly, which is a serious issue blighting the lives of many people. We know that the quality of people’s relationships has a massive impact on their physical and mental well-being. If we improve social and local connections, we can keep people healthier, active and more resilient for longer. If we do not, as she rightly said, people will continue to have their lives cut short. We are raising awareness of the issue and helping local health and well-being boards and commissioners to get better at measuring the issue in their local communities. This will help them to come up with the right targeted solutions and to drive local improvements that really make a difference. Loneliness and social isolation are problems that government alone cannot solve. For older people, as the right reverend Prelate was right to say, extending working life may be part of the answer, along with encouraging neighbourhood action, volunteering and participation…