Issue 01 UK / Europe — 21 September 2004

In October 2003 the bodies of George and Gertrude Bates, a couple in their eighties, were found in the house they had lived in for 63 years. Because of their low income, they had not been able to afford to pay for their gas bills, so their supply was cut off. Their deaths – George died of hypothermia, Gertrude of a heart attack – followed weeks after this. Some of the discussion regarding the case in the media concerned the seemingly pernicious effect of the Data Protection Act, according to which British Gas could not inform social services of the elderly couple’s situation without their permission. As they were not able to contact the couple after 11 visits to the house, the permission was not obtained, so no assistance was given to the couple by the relevant authorities. However, the wider question to be considered concerns the plight of the elderly in modern Britain, both in regard to the services and support of the state, and that provided by families and the wider community.

According to Help the Aged, 21,800 deaths among the elderly over the winter of 2003 could be directly attributed to the cold conditions, a shocking statistic that reflects the poor conditions that many elderly people live in today. According to their calculations, the total for such deaths over the past ten years exceeds 300,000. Today high numbers of elderly people live in situations of deprivation, as the meagre pensions or other contributions that they receive do not provide for all of their needs. According to Department of Work and Pensions statistics, in 2000–01 69% of households headed by a pensioner depended on state benefits for at least 50% of their income. While according to the Centre for Policy on Ageing, “… a quarter of all pensioners have no resources other than a state pension and income support.” Due to these low incomes, pensioners struggle to find the means to cover their basic necessities. The Family Expenditure Survey conducted by The Office for National Statistics found that (in 2000–01) 36% of the average household’s expenditure was spent on housing, fuel and food. For households where the head was aged 65 or older, this figure rose to 40%; while for pensioners living alone who were dependent mainly on state pensions, this rose to 49%. One result of such privation among the elderly is the unacceptably high level of cold-related deaths each year during winter.

Despite the UK being one of the richest countries in the world, as a society it is increasingly unwilling to bear the costs of caring for the elderly, in terms of the money and the time that must be invested. This reflects the strengthening of individualism in society, but not only are people unwilling to devote time to caring for relatives, as they do not see it as their responsibility, the fact that people are more likely to work and live far from relatives also limits the time available for people to directly undertake the provision of care.

It could be argued that the dominance of single-person households in the UK as a proportion of total households indicates the extent to which society has become accustomed to more fractured human relations. According to the 2001 Census, there were 21,660,475 households in England and Wales, and 30.0 per cent of these (6.5 million) are one-person house-holds – up from 26.3 per cent in 1991. This makes the single-person household the most prevalent in the UK, while couples without children are the second most prevalent type. As society has moved towards this more solitary mode of living, generally speaking, the elderly have not been among the beneficiaries.

The changing attitudes towards family life and care are reflected in a study commissioned by the Salvation Army, results of which they published on 13th January 2004 in a report entitled ‘The Responsibility Gap’. Attitudes towards a range of issues were canvassed, including views about care for the elderly. 34% of the respondents agreed with the statement “I’m worried there won’t be anyone to look after me when I’m old.” However, 21% also agreed with the statement “I don’t want to have to care for my relatives when they get old.” While society accepts that the situation that many elderly people face today is not acceptable, fewer people are ready to take on the burden of caring for their elderly relatives themselves, whether that be the financial aspects or the necessary daily care. For example, 37% of respondents to the Salvation Army study agreed with the statement “Government is currently having to fund many of the basic social services that should be provided by the family.” When asked ‘Who is MOST responsible for looking after/contributing assistance to your children’, 69% of respondents said ‘Myself’. When asked about care for their grandparents however, only 9% felt that they were the person most responsible for such care or ensuring that it was provided. Also, while only 5% of respondents felt that the national government was primarily responsible for providing care for their children, 17% felt that the national government held prime responsibility for their grandparents care. The increasing numbers of elderly who do not receive care from their own relatives are a natural reflection of these attitudes.

The elderly are now receiving much less informal care (as opposed to paid care, such as home help) from younger family members, such as their children or children-in-law, than was the case even in the eighties. While statistics seem to show only a small decrease in the number of people involved in informal care for over 65s, the amount being undertaken by younger generations has fallen sharply. It is far likelier nowadays that the person caring for an elderly relative is their spouse or partner, rather than a younger relation. According to the General Household Survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics in 1985, around 48.4% of informal carers were the children or children-in-law of the older people being cared for. In 1995, this share had dropped markedly, to approximately 38.2%. Over the same period, the proportion of carers who were the spouse of the older person receiving care increased greatly. As a proportion of carers, they were 37.1% in 1985, but by 1995 they had increased to around 56%. In absolute terms, there were around 340 thousand people over 65 receiving care from their spouses in 1985, whereas in 1995 there were 490 thousand. The number of older people receiving care from their children or children-in-law declined by about 100 thousand, from 435 thousand in 1985 to 335 thousand in 1995, a drop of around 23 per cent.

The increase in care provided by partners is a reflection of demographic changes in the population; as longevity increases, there is a higher likelihood of both partners surviving into old age; there is also an increased likelihood of one of the partners requiring care due to illness. The decrease in care being provided by children, children-in-law, or friends or other relatives reflects the fact that people are more inclined to view the care for their elderly relatives as the responsibility of the state rather than something they as individuals are primarily responsible for. Thus the situation today is that society has effectively disengaged itself from the elderly, leaving them to provide care for themselves.

The individualistic current running through society has failed the elderly in many ways in recent years and it is no surprise that, despite increasingly well-documented statistics and anecdotal evidence, the plight of the elderly has remained a low political priority. If we look at the other end of the age spectrum we can see a stark contrast in the treatment of two of society’s most vulnerable sectors. In order to protect children, there is a great deal of legislation, whether that covers neglect or abuse by parents, guardians and other adults. For an adult to abandon care of their parent or other relative is not a crime at all, regardless of the fact that the person in question may depend on others for care. Despite increasing media attention over the years to cases of abuse in care homes, there are no specific criminal charges related to the abuse of the elderly. As a result, there are no official statistics that relate specifically to crimes of any nature against the elderly, whether the crimes are physical or financial. If the UK’s legal framework does not distinguish between a man of 18 and a man of 80, how can it possibly hold people to account when they let down society’s most vulnerable members?
So with family members and the wider community increasingly reluctant to play a significant role in the care of the elderly, it is not a surprise that government services are expected to step into the gap. However, at the same time that the government is expected by many to be the main provider of care for the elderly, the continuing existence of the state pension system in its current form seems increasingly unlikely.

The pension system, among other welfare reforms introduced over the course of the early 20th century, was initially conceived as a way to provide a safety net for the working population, as the taxes taken from salaries of workers would provide support for them in old age and ill-health. The contributions made by an individual over their working lives would be recompensed to cover their care and maintenance in old age. The payments made by the working population twenty or thirty years ago were used to pay for the pensioners of that time; now that the workforce of that era are now pensioners, the different benefits they are entitled to are funded by the contributions being made by the current workforce.

However, as the population structure of the UK has changed, the provisions made available to pensioners now cannot possibly meet their needs, nor are they a fair reflection of the taxes they have paid over their working lives. Life expectancy in the UK has increased greatly over the course of the 20th century; whereas in the 1900s, the average figure for life expectancy was in the mid-forties, in 1999 life expectancy for men was 75.1 years and for women 80.1 years. Thus the length of time for which the average pensioner is drawing the different forms of state benefit has lengthened considerably, now it is over ten years for men and over twenty years for women.

A natural result of the longer lives that people are living is that pensioners comprise a greater proportion of the population today than ever before, approximately 18%. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, in May 2003, 10,526,000 pensioners (99% of those eligible) were collecting at least one form of benefit. At the same time, as women have fewer children, at a later age, the ratio between the working population and the pensioner population has been decreasing. This ‘dependency ratio’ is a key statistic as it determines the number of taxpayers in relation to the number of benefit recipients. At the time of the Beveridge report, which led to the inception of the modern welfare state, there were roughly five people of working age per pensioner, a dependency ratio of 20%. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2002, the dependency ratio had increased to 29.8%, i.e. for every pensioner there were only 3.55 workers. As this population trend continues, taxes will have to be raised just to keep the state pension at its already insufficient level.

The weekly rate for the state pension in 2003 was £77.45 for a single person and £122.80 for a married couple (over 80s get an extra 25 pence), which can be claimed by any UK citizen, regardless of how much money they have earned throughout their career. Since on their own these are insufficient to meet even the most basic needs, there is a range of means tested benefits that can be claimed by pensioners in addition to the pension. When these meagre pensions are paid out weekly to over 10 million people though, it adds up to a considerable amount of expenditure. In the financial year 2001/02, government expenditure on pensions exceeded £43bn, over 40% of total government expenditure on benefits and roughly 4% of GDP.

As the cost of providing the elderly with the state pension, other benefits and personal care services has increased, successive governments have scaled back and redefined the benefit system to limit expenditure on pensioners year after year. For example, the Thatcher government in 1980 started to link the state pension to prices rather than earnings, as the yearly increase in prices is generally less than that of earnings. So while the general trend is that workers will see an increase in their spending power during their career as average salaries rise, for pensioners this has been put on hold. Big increases in items such as the council tax, which are not related to general price levels, thus hit pensioners much harder than others; this is because the yearly increase in this tax could be 20 or 30 per cent, while the pension may increase by a few percentage points at most. The ostensible link between contributions and pensions has thus been undermined, saving the government billions on pensions. However, since this has just added to pensioner deprivation, more pensioners are entitled to income support (or the Minimum Income Guarantee as it is known for over 60s), so the burden has moved from one area of government expenditure to another, it has not been reduced entirely.

Governments of both major parties have provided a range of means-tested benefits, which they claim enable funds to be directed towards the most deprived. In reality, they are effectively another cost-saving measure. As many pensioners are unaware of the less well-known benefits, these go unclaimed altogether, while applying for others can be a daunting task. For example, in order to apply for Attendance Allowance, a benefit for the over-65s who require assistance at home, a 16-page form must be filled out. This new improved form replaced two forms that totalled 34 pages . It is not surprising that the patience and comprehension of many people is taxed by such bureaucracy, resulting in more than £2bn in unclaimed benefits each year.

Another way in which governments have attempted to reduce their provision for the elderly has been in regards to the provision of care home places. First of all, the system was opened up so that private care homes could compete to supply local councils with care facilities, based on the notion that the private sector would provide a more efficiently priced service. Due to negative publicity about cases of abuse and neglect in care homes, the government has brought in stricter regulations regarding the standards of facilities and staff training. Despite the increased costs involved for owners of care homes in complying with these measures, government funding for care home places is only increasing by around 3–4% each year. The result is that over the past decade hundreds of homes have had to close and thousands of beds have been lost. According to the Salvation Army, between January 2002 and April 2003 alone, 745 independent care homes closed down and 13,400 places for the elderly and disabled were lost. The figures for 2003-4 indicate a further net loss of 9600 homes. While some of these closures may have been due to the owners deciding to take advantage of the booming property market, the main losers have still been the elderly and vulnerable. Demand for these places has decreased at the same time however, as local authorities have started to employ more home care visitors instead. This may save cash-strapped authorities vital funds, but it also increases the isolation of the elderly who may only see their carer once a fortnight. The loss of these facilities could lead to a dangerous shortfall once the numbers of elderly who must have full-time residential care starts to increase again.

Another measure that has been proposed in order to reduce the tax burden is an increase in the statutory pension age for women, from 60 to 65. This change, which will be phased in between 2010 and 2020, reduces the cost of providing pensions for women; now there are calls for the retirement age of men to be increased to 70, or a joint pension age of 67 for both men and women. However, the fact that an ever greater number of 60–64 year olds are retiring early before the statutory age, thus depriving the state of more tax revenue, limits the extent to which this method will have a significant impact. Also, this approach leaves the elderly who are too infirm to continue working in an even more precarious situation, as they have to wait longer for eligibility for funds yet they cannot work to support themselves. Alongside this, there are greater efforts to counter ageism in the workplace, so that more pensioners remain in the workforce. Whether there is widespread enthusiasm amongst the elderly about the prospect of working into their sixties and seventies after a full working life is a different matter.

An alternative approach to the funding problem is to look for ways of increasing the working population, thereby increasing the amount of revenue being injected into the tax system. The primary means by which this is to be achieved is to allow greater amounts of immigrants of working age to enter the country, thereby improving the dependency ratio. Immigration not only increases the working population; since such immigrants are sought from countries where birth rates are higher, this can help to reverse the decline in population growth which is at the heart of the pensions crisis. This approach has been tried across Europe by different states facing similar problems of labour shortage and stagnant or negative population growth.

However, the issue of immigration and asylum is perhaps the most explosive and hotly debated subject in the political arena at present. Regardless of prosaic matters such as statistics on tax revenue and consideration of fiscal reform; or the contribution, economic and otherwise, made by immigrants in their host societies, in the popular imagination the issue of immigration is one of the home territory being ‘swamped’ by hordes determined to strip the country bare. In the face of this public hostility and concern, rather than advocating any increases in immigration, the government is doing all it can to portray itself as tough on immigration. It is unlikely that any government or mainstream political party in the near future would start to advocate an opening up of immigration policy, regardless of the merits claimed by its supporters.

After careful consideration, it is clear that the increasing unwillingness of successive governments to provide adequate care for the elderly has had serious consequences for one of the most vulnerable sectors of society. The solution for this problem lies in a fundamental reconsideration of where the responsibility and burden of care for the elderly really lies. As stated before, it is a common view that the government bears the main responsibility for the situation of the elderly today. This is in no small part due to the fact that, for years, the government has taken taxes from working people on the premise that it would provide for them in later life. The government’s ability to marshal resources and finances undoubtedly exceeds that of the average citizen, so this in turn leads to the expectation that the state should be able to do better at caring for the elderly.

From the individualistic perspective that society is accustomed to, people are expected to make their own judgements on what responsibilities they wish to take on, but at the same time, there are expectations of what people are entitled to. As we have seen before, the increasing atomisation of society has inclined people to cherish separation from familial responsibilities, but to provide care for people in old age at arms length means that people have to bear an increasing tax burden to fund the system adequately. While people see the burden of care for the old as unappetising, it is clear that the current system requires that they must pay more and do more to see the situation of the elderly improve. As the situation of private funded pensions comes to mirror that of the public system, it is also clear that there will be no magic bullet from the private sector.

Despite talk of ‘government priorities’ or ‘government responsibilities’ towards the elderly, the phrase holds little meaning in itself; whatever responsibility the government takes on, it is the public who will foot the bill. Even though there may be reluctance among many people to care for their relatives, they are involved in that care indirectly anyway. The funds that provide services and benefits for the elderly come from taxes on the working population who are the children of that earlier generation. As demographic factors take effect, the future of care for the elderly in the UK is very bleak. It is quite clear that the current system cannot continue indefinitely, due to the decreasing ratio between workers and pensioners. Unless people look beyond the narrow confines of the individualistic mindset that negates the importance of care for others, the most likely result is that increasing numbers of the elderly will live in isolation and deprivation.

The Islamic perspective on responsibilities towards the relatives, especially the elderly, differs from the western perspective. The key reason for this difference is that the Islamic view towards society and family places a greater emphasis on the fulfilment of mutual responsibilities than on the sovereignty of the individual and his autonomy from the wider community. It could be said that, in the traditional liberal viewpoint, the State is viewed as a ‘necessary evil’ essential to guarantee the liberty of the citizens to pursue happiness as they choose. In the Islamic view, the Islamic State is the formal embodiment of the collective duties that must be undertaken by the Ummah (Islamic ‘nation’) , towards themselves and the world as a whole.

In Islam, care for the relatives and especially the parents has been strongly emphasised. In the Qur’an, the rights of parents are frequently mentioned along with Allah’s Right to be worshipped. This is an indication that the importance of sustaining and caring for parents is such that it is almost at the same level as worshipping Allah.

“And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them ‘Uff’ (a word of disrespect), nor shout at them, but address them in terms of honour. And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: ‘My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.’”

One of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) narrated in a hadeeth (an authenticated narration of what the Prophet said, did or consented to) that he said: “‘May he be disgraced! May he be disgraced! May he be disgraced.’ It was said, ‘Who, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said, ‘The person whose parents, one or both of them, reach old age during his lifetime but he does not enter Paradise (by rendering the services due to them).’”

Thus the prime responsibility for care of the elderly falls on their offspring and other relatives. The motivating factor for undertaking this duty is that Islam has accorded its fulfilment a spiritual significance in the same manner as prayer and fasting.

The legal responsibility for care and provision usually rests with the individual, i.e. first of all they should make effort to secure their own livelihood. In circumstances where they are not capable of undertaking this, then their immediate family bear this duty and then relatives further on. This is exemplified by the hadeeth in which he stated:

“If any one of you is poor let him start with himself (i.e. provision) and if any one of you has surplus (wealth) let him spend on his family, and if any of you has further surplus let him spend it on his relatives.”

From this narration and others like it, it is understood by Islamic scholars that there is a clear order of priority in terms of the financial obligation to provide care and maintenance, the individual is responsible first of all for himself, then his immediate family, and then further on to other relatives.

The relatives who should bear this burden of provision have been outlined in the Qur’an, the Book of Allah, where it is stated:

“…But the father of the child shall bear the cost of the mother’s food and clothing on a reasonable basis. No person shall have a burden placed on him greater than he can bear. No mother shall be treated unfairly on account of her child, nor a father on account of his child. And on the (father’s) heir is incumbent the like of that (which was incumbent on the father).” The ruling outlined in the verse of the Qur’an outlines some of the issues related to the maintenance of the wife and child by the father after divorce. However, the point at issue here is that when the father is incapable or not present to provide the necessary financial support, the duty is transferred to his inheritors (the rules of inheritance are also outlined and fixed in the Qur’an). The list of potential inheritors are thus understood to bear a linked financial responsibility to the person they inherit from, so that they must fulfil his financial responsibilities in his place. Also, if the people from whom one is in a position to inherit, such as the parent, cannot care for themselves, the inheritor must undertake this for them. From these and other evidences, Islam has laid out a financial network of support that is based primarily upon the family, and within that structure, whichever relatives are capable must undertake the burden without recourse to the state.

If relatives are unwilling to fulfil this duty then they must be compelled to undertake it by the state. As is the situation when a husband is compelled to pay alimony following divorce, or indeed, the way that the state appropriates the wealth of people to fund the benefit system. By similar means, the state ensures that families fulfil their particular responsibility. The elderly will have the right to extract their maintenance from unwilling relatives via the courts, if those responsible for them refuse to fulfil their duties. If necessary, in some cases of persistent neglect, the necessary funds can be taken from the relative’s salary on a regular basis, as happens currently with national insurance and income tax.

Inevitably, this cannot always happen, as relatives may be able to evade their responsibility by fraudulent means. Also, there may be no surviving relatives to provide support, or those present may be in need of support as well.

In any of these situations, the state must step in to provide care for those in need. However, the manner in which it raises the necessary funds must be undertaken from appropriate sources. As stated before, from the Islamic perspective, when it comes to the issue of care for the needy, the state is not considered an independent actor from the populace; it is rather considered a proxy, executing the general duties of society on behalf of the people.

Another hadeeth of the Prophet Muhammad states:

“Start with yourself and make charity for it, and if anything is left give it to your (immediate) family, and if anything is left after that give it to your relatives, and if anything is left after that, do it like such and such, i.e. in front of you, to your right hand and your left hand.”

The narration gives a particular order of responsibility of provision that expands outwards. After the relatives, family and the individual have been provided for, the general duty to provide for others begins. This is significant as it indicates that the government should tax the general public from their excess wealth, not from the wealth that should go first to the close or distant relatives.

So the funding that would underpin an Islamic benefit system would have to come from wealth taxes that duly reflect the extent to which people need first to support their family, young and old. Thus, taxes, such as income tax and VAT, which disproportionately are drawn from the working poor, would not be levied. More effort would be focussed on drawing taxation from wealthy citizens who are more than capable of providing for themselves and their families.

On the other side of the table, since the state exercises effort to ensure that families support their relatives directly, less revenue will be required to be raised. Further, no state pension would be given to those wealthy pensioners who have large savings and the support of wealthy families, as they are simply not in need of it.

One objection that could be raised to this view is that the paid carers working for the government to provide care for the elderly can provide superior care to that provided by untrained family members. In comparison to the current situation, this is very unlikely, due to the fact that so many professional carers have received little or no training for the work that they do. However, the ability of the state to provide better trained carers for the elderly, or financial assistance for families with elderly relatives, would be improved by a system which provided care targeted at those with reduced means rather than a general system that provides state pensions even to the elderly who are well-off.

There are many people who are sceptical about the effectiveness and validity of the family as the idealised basic unit of society. This is due to the fact that the ‘return to family values’ has been a convenient rallying call for those who oppose the existence of the welfare state. Rather than admit the fact that they would prefer the market to be the only arbiter of what goods and services people receive, such free market champions, in the UK and US especially, focus on the importance of family. Due to this focus, sceptics point out that, for example in the case of childcare, the majority of abusers are either relatives or acquaintances of parents. Thus they suggest that proclaiming the family, or family values, as a panacea for social ills is misleading.

Indeed, if we look to the findings of Action on Elder Abuse, a UK organisation that aims to raise awareness regarding abuse of the elderly, we could find confirmation of this view. They conducted a study of calls to their national helpline from people seeking advice concerning possible cases of abuse, from 1997 to 1999, during which they found that 46.5% of abusers were family members and 29.4% were paid workers. But the study also found that the least likely abuser was the relative providing the main care for the elderly person (1.9%). So in the vast majority of cases, this problem does not stem from the relatives still committed to providing care, but rather reflects the spread of a more venal attitude towards the elderly among other family members.

From another angle, if a person has a number of dependants this would mean that the State would take less of their wealth in taxation, provided they gave proof that they were maintaining such dependants whether old or young. Thus people would readily supply information about the people they were providing for to the authorities. Since such information could be expected to be accurate, it would give state officials, such as health workers for example, the opportunity to visit homes and check on the condition of the elderly and see that they were getting proper care, if there were concerns that this was not taking place. Currently, there are no standardised procedures to ensure that this happens, as the elderly are supposed to report their need rather than others being obliged to follow up and look into their situation. As was the case with George and Gertrude Bates, unless the elderly inform social services or some other state authority of their situation, it is likely that they will not receive the help that they deserve. So, if for nothing else than a tax break, relatives will be inclined to over-report care for the elderly, giving the state information to track and verify, rather than under-report.

For society to be more effective in providing for the elderly requires changes in the way that government and families view their responsibilities. But despite all the positive results that could be attributed to a rebalancing of the relationship between the generations, the fact remains that individualism is one of the defining characteristics of western society, one that has had an immense impact on the social and legislative climate in the UK over the past 50 years. However, as has been made clear over the course of this article, this same philosophy has produced an increasingly imbalanced society, which has not repaid many of its citizens in old age for the material and moral contributions they have made to society over a lifetime.

Thus an effective solution to the pensions crisis will not be provided by changes in government policy or tax regimes. It is not a managerial issue that merely requires better handling. This problem is rather a product of the core values that have been embraced by this society. Islam presents a radically alternative viewpoint towards family and society that offers an answer to the problems facing the elderly in the UK and the developed western world as a whole.

Jamal Okae


1Population Trends: vol. 110, pp 11, Linda Pickard
2Office for National Statistics: Key demographic & health indicators, 2003
3Office for National Statistics: Population over State pension age
4Adam Smith Institute: What’s wrong with the welfare state? (1996)
6The Salvation Army: The responsibility gap: Laing & Buisson’s Annual Care of Elderly People Market Survey 2003
7The Qur’an [Chapter 17: v23–24]
8Saheeh Muslim (4627)
9The Social System In Islam, Taqiuddin an-Nabhani
10The Qur’an Chapter 2, v. 233
11Saheeh Muslim
12Listening is not enough, Ginny Jenkins, Zee Asif and Gerry Bennett (Action on Elder Abuse)

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