Older Peoples' Commissioner shocked by PfG omission

29 Jul 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 29 Jul 2016

Eddie Lynch

Scope meets Eddie Lynch, the new Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland. 

When Eddie Lynch was chief executive at Age Sector Platform he campaigned for the appointment of an Older Peoples Commissioner. He got his way and now, years later he’s got the job himself.

He said: “We campaigned vigorously for the post. The feeling amongst older people was that whilst campaigning organisations can do so much there would need to be a body with more robust legal powers to hold government to account.

“It is a very responsible role and a great honour to have been appointed to it.”

The transition has not been too difficult. At Age Sector Platform Lynch’s role was primarily about empowering older people: his organisation was behind the Pensioners’ Parliament for example, and he has had more than eight years working with the age group and getting to understand what issues matter.

The difference now is that he is able to take action to intervene and to get government to sit up and take notice.

One of his most immediate tasks has been responding to the draft Programme for Government and he describes himself as being “shocked” that it contained no reference whatsoever to older people despite the fact that they account for such a substantial proportion of the population. The numbers of people over 60 in Northern Ireland are projected to increase from 396,000 to 445,000 during 2016-2021, the lifetime of the Assembly.

COPNI’s response to PfG contrasts the references to younger people: “the document contains 20 mentions of ‘young people’, and the 14th outcome is exclusively focused on younger people – ‘We give our children and young people the best start in life’, with six commitments under ‘The Role of the Executive’ and 20 supporting Indicators.”

Lynch is proposing the addition of another outcome: “We respect, value and protect our older people” and his team have drafted 19 indicators showing how progress towards that should be measured.

 It will be interesting to see whether or not the Executive makes any changes to allay his concerns.

“I think the idea of an outcomes-based approach is good and welcome the emphasis on cross-departmental working, but it is shocking to discover that older people don’t feature in the document,” he says. “Older people feel strongly that they are not very high up on the political agenda and it is therefore very important that a document like this should be clear on the commitment. “

In contrast to this he says he has been encouraged by his contacts with Ministers to date. Just a few weeks into office and he has met three already: Justice, Communities and Health and says he had a good hearing from all three.

“You have to work with people to get change: it takes time and endurance but there are opportunities and I’ve been pleased with meetings to date.”

For Lynch it is important to keep a clear focus on priorities. There are so many issues that affect older people that a danger for his office is to spread resources too thinly. He and his team have prepared draft priorities which are now out for consultation with older people and those who represent them.

His first substantive campaign will be on financial abuse of older people, specifically postal, phone and internet scams.

These are often organised by international criminal networks and can be extremely convincing and sophisticated. Victims will often find themselves on a so-called “Suckers List” of vulnerable people that criminal gangs can purchase from others.

Lynch said: “A good way of putting this is that if you have something to lose, there’s a scam out there to catch you out.”

Older people are especially vulnerable for many reasons, but one obvious one is that they are more likely to be at home and therefore take cold calls. Some people report getting as many as a dozen a day.

Loneliness and isolation can be a factor in how these calls are handled. So some older people may be tempted to chat when they would be wiser to hang up. They are also more likely to read direct mail.

Scams affect all strata of society, from low level lottery frauds to highly sophisticated stings involving many thousands of pounds.

COPNI is currently investigating the scale of the problem as it affects older people in Northern Ireland and will be publishing its findings in the Autumn. Initial findings are that it is a serious problem in Northern Ireland and more prevalent than in the rest of the UK.

In the case of older people in particular there is evidence of under-reporting of this kind of fraud, perhaps because victims feel shame at having been duped.

Lynch has already held talks with Trading Standards, the PSNI and financial institutions and is planning an awareness- raising campaign in the Autumn, encouraging people to take precautions to protect themselves.

Another issue concerning Lynch is inter-generational tension, which surfaced in the media around the Referendum. A majority of older people voted to leave the European Union and off the back of that some commentators in the media were even suggesting either that older people should not have been allowed to vote or that there should be an upper age limit on voting.

“This was divisive and dangerous,” he says. “and there was no excuse for it.”

“We should not be setting one generation up against another. Young people do have issues, affordable housing and access to employment are just two of them. These do need to be addressed, but we need to stop pitching young up against old. For example nobody has ever been able to explain to me how means testing the bus pass can help younger people ‘s employment prospects.”

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