Opinion;Scrooge Government Pays For Abusing The Law

  • 22 December 2004
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It has been well-signalled for some years now that care of the aged is going to be one of the most pressing, and most expensive, problems to confront us in the future.

Put simply, people are living longer than ever before as the nation's health continues to improve, and – while some efforts may be made to extend working life beyond 65 – this means that people will be living for longer on pensions, both state and company.

Charlie McCreevy has made provision for this, but to what extent it will meet future needs cannot now be certain. There are many proposals floating about suggesting that the State should opt out of pension provision altogether and force individuals to make provision for themselves through their own direct investment schemes.

At the moment, though, most old people receive a contributory – or some a non-contributory – State pension.

This pension, paid for out of taxation, is a reward for years of work and contribution, often to the care of the elderly who went before them. It is what you would expect of a decent society.

But the current controversy over nursing-home costs ignores both the magnitude of the costs involved and the context of pension entitlement.

Politically, of course, the Government has made a monstrous mess in dealing with this. Mary Harney seems to have been too anxious to throw the blame for the problem on to Mícheál Martin instead of winning people over to an equitable and rational solution.

The point is that pensions are provided to allow old people meet the costs of living when they can no longer work. To suggest that long-term – and usually permanently long-term – care should be provided by the State in addition to the pension provided to meet an old person's expenses when living independently strikes me as absurd. Why should people be paid on the double?

There are wild stories floating about of the hardship caused by this. It is all nonsense. If the pension is not used by the State to offset the high costs of nursing-home care, it will accumulate in bank accounts that will ultimately be inherited by the descendants of those who need care; meanwhile, presumably, those who can look after themselves would use the pension money for that purpose and so not be able to accumulate it for inheritance. No old person is left destitute by the deduction arrangements, since approximately 20 per cent of the pension is left for personal expenditure.

This is not an abstract question. I am speaking with real knowledge here as my own mother is in nursing care, no longer able to look after herself. I can see no justification for my brothers or myself inheriting her unused pension instead of it being used to offset the costs of the care she is getting now.

There is nothing Scrooge-like about this position.

But the Government has managed to give itself a Scrooge image. It has undone much of its good work in redressing the retrogressive image it had before the last Budget – though the Opposition, to its credit, has generally refrained from going overboard on the issue.

The Government's problem is that it has thrown aside the basic principles of the Rule of Law in relation to this controversy, by attempting to declare legal what was manifestly illegal, and by refusing to refund monies illegally taken.

All the legal niceties in the world can't take away that image, even if the courts eventually uphold the Government's stance. It is, of course, tragic that our much vaunted civil service ignored repeated advice as to the illegality of taking money from old people with medical cards who were entitled to such treatment for free. They ignored the law, in the hope that either no one would notice or that the issue would be lost in a welter of legal argument and counter-argument.

This was both arrogant and ultimately uncaring: for it subordinated the rights of people, old vulnerable people, to the discretionary efficiency or otherwise of the system.

But in a democracy we all live by the rules, not just the citizens, but the Government and the administrators as well. To hold on to money that you know was taken illegally is theft. And that is why, I believe, the Government is suffering so much on this question. They can certainly win the argument on the main point – that it is equitable for pensions to be used to offset nursing home costs – but they cannot win the argument that they can pick and choose what laws they obey and when.

Eoin ó Murchú is the Eagraí Polaitíochta of RTé Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity