01:11, January 23 193 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-23 01:11:05
When is it time to call it a day? In this country, we have no idea

I still remember the frustration I felt as a teenager at the plethora of inconsistent rules that governed what I could and could not do, on the basis solely of my age: when I could vote, marry, drive a car or buy drinks. I am now reaching the stage in life when a whole new set of age-based cans and can’ts are starting to determine what I’m allowed to do.

We are living longer, working longer and remaining active for longer. By 2040, nearly one in seven people living in Britain will be over 75. The Office for National Statistics figures show the number of people living to 90 and beyond has almost trebled in the past 30 years. But once you reach your 70s, you suddenly realise that life is full of anomalies, inconsistencies, prejudices and mixed messages. Isn’t it about time we examined these and worked to construct a more rational approach to later life?

Let’s start with driving. At the age of 70 everybody has to reapply for a driving licence, but it simply involves completing a self-assessment form about your health, nothing else. Then you can go on driving for ever. The evidence suggests that drivers over 70 are involved in three to four times fewer accidents, proportionately, than men under 21. But the road accident involving Prince Philip, 97 – in which everybody involved luckily escaped serious injury – is a vivid reminder of the absurdity of these lax rules. People should be properly checked for their continuing fitness to drive.

And while we impose no limits on driving, if you want to go on holiday and are over 70, travel insurance becomes a major headache. Aviva will not give you annual insurance cover if you’re over 75, and John Lewis stops offering annual cover at 73. Most insurance companies raise the costs for older people, despite evidence that people in their 70s are less likely to make a claim. You are considered a safe pair of hands in a car, but it is more expensive to be an active traveller, just at that stage in your life when you actually have more freedom to explore the world.

In the same vein, the decisions taken by health professionals need to be transparent so that we can publicly debate whether they are right. It may be a good thing that the NHS generally only supports IVF treatment for women up to 42. But a recent study by Macmillan Cancer Support found that while 81% of oncologists would prescribe chemotherapy for a high-risk breast cancer patient aged 68, only 47% would recommend the same treatment for an otherwise identical patient aged 73. Does society endorse that clinical judgment based on age? I’m not convinced.

In 2016 the age limit for serving on a jury in England and Wales was raised from 70 to 75. The majority of judges still have to retire at 70. So your age is seen as defining your capacity to make judgments about the law. But politicians – who are also charged with making crucial judgments – can go on and on. I am reaching my mid-70s, Dennis Skinner continues to make his strident comments at the age of 86, and Jeremy Corbyn will be well into his 70s at the next general election. I’m all for people continuing to contribute, and I certainly view life as a marathon, not a sprint. But should lawmakers keep plodding on while judges and juries face a cut-off date?

Other jobs throw up fresh sets of contradictions. You can’t join the army as an officer once you are over 29, but you can become a crime-fighting police officer until the ripe age of 57. Surprisingly, there is no upper age limit on learning to fly an aircraft. Similarly, 100-year-old Fauja Singh from Ilford in London ran the Toronto marathon in 2011 (and didn’t finish last).

The church in Wales makes vicars retire at the age of 70. But in the Catholic church, while there is theoretically a retirement age of 70, in practice it’s at the discretion of bishops.

And when we start to examine the world of tax and benefits, questions about consistency and fairness immediately arise. Does it make sense that people in work stop paying national insurance contributions when they reach state pension age even if they continue to earn? ONS figures suggest that 16% of men and 11% of women are still in work at the age of 70, well beyond the current state pension age.

The national insurance rule is based on the fable that national insurance contributions pay directly for our pensions. That is no longer true. So there is no logical justification for older people paying less tax based on their earned income. But equally, if people continue to work beyond 75, they should surely retain the entitlement to tax relief on their pension contributions, unlike at present. The benefits for older people are also a complete muddle. In England, you receive a free bus pass at retirement age, but eligibility for a free television licence comes at 75. Whether you receive winter fuel payments depends on when you were born rather than how cold or poor you are.

English Heritage gives you a £7 annual discount on membership at 65, but the National Trust offers a reduction to senior citizens only if they are longstanding members. If I go to watch Mary Poppins Returns, I will save £1 at the Vue cinema, £2.60 at the Showcase and £2 at Cineworld. For dinner afterwards, I would pay full whack at a Wetherspoon’s but get a knockdown dinner if I go to a Greene King pub. Bizarre.

Clearly, we need a proper debate to understand and, if necessary, challenge arbitrary age limits. We need to allow people to go on working if they wish to do so, to get access to healthcare that could improve their lives, to live later life to the full, and to continue to play an active role in society. The landscape of rights and prohibitions for older people is a mess. I’m certainly too old to sort it out. Or am I?

Margaret Hodge is MP for Barking

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