I joined the BSG Executive Committee in July, and agreed to take on the new remit of Devolved Nations. I wasn’t quite sure what that involved, but it sounded like a good way to put Northern Ireland on the BSG map. And given that my mother is Welsh, and my grandmother was born in Scotland, I’m always happy to reflect my family roots. But why does the BSG have a focus on devolved nations, and why now?
Models of devolution
The three devolved nations within the UK all have different legislative contexts, and slightly different powers. Northern Ireland and Wales have legislative assemblies. The Scottish Parliament has the largest set of devolved powers – including some authority on income tax and benefits, and has recently passed legislation to integrate health and social care delivery. In Northern Ireland, social care, education and housing are not delivered by local authorities, and we have an integrated health and social care system. However, not all issues are devolved from Westminster (such as the constitution, defence, national security, immigration and citizenship and some tax policy).
Social and demographic context
There are different social, demographic and geographic contexts across the UK. The most recent population estimates for mid 2016 identify the variation in age distributions. Northern Ireland still has a relatively young age structure, with a median age of 38.3, whilst the median age in England is 39.8, in Scotland it is 41.9, whilst Wales has a median age of 42.4. The current and historical industrial and economic contexts are also relevant to how different groups of people and societies age, as are patterns of rurality.
But of course, devolution doesn’t just apply to entire nations, and recent developments include devolution at regional and city level in England. One example is the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which has control over some local spending and decisions.
Devolution and ageing
This all means that devolution is a critical factor in exploring how policy and services affect our population. It also impacts on our identity, sense of place and access to cultural capital. A useful paper ‘Policy for Peace of Mind?’ published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2009 explored policies relating to older people within and across the UK. One conclusion was that it was too early to assess the difference that devolution has made to outcomes for older people as whole. Move forward to 2017, and we need to start to assess the impact of devolution. We can also start to think critically about devolution, and learn from the experiences of other devolved regions.
More widely, a major challenge right across the UK is Brexit, and key issues include land and sea borders, and the future labour force. We need to think about the implications for older people living in the UK, as well as the situation of older people from the UK living in other EU countries. It is vitally important to consider how these challenges will impact different areas, and how each of the devolved nations will respond and react.
BSG and devolved nations
This is where the BSG comes in. BSG Scotland has been running successfully since 2002. BSG Northern Ireland was set up in 2015, and we’re still finding our feet. BSG Cymru is the newest BSG on the block. One vital role of these BSG groups is that we can represent the BSG in our regional debates. Due to the smaller geographic size, BSG members in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have direct links with the relevant policy makers. Moreover, there is a Commissioner for Older People in Wales and in Northern Ireland, and again, it is vital for us to be part of discussions and decisions made by these organisations.
It’s also important that we do this now, as devolution is constantly evolving. The Wales Act 2017 will come into effect in 2018, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will move to the reserved powers model used in Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the same time, however, devolution in Northern Ireland is in crisis, and there are rumours of return to direct rule.
Emmanuelle Tulle (BSG Scotland) and Martin Hyde (BSG Cymru) and I have been talking about how we can work together, and we’ve already come up with a list of collaborative activities. Some, such as this introductory blog, are relatively easy to do. I’ve certainly learned some new facts just by writing it. Others may be more challenging, not least because we are geographically separate. So watch this space.