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Author: The News Letter
Published on 22 June 2010 09:00 AM

An Older People’s Commissioner could be appointed by early next year to defend the rights and interests of the elderly in Northern Ireland. Helen McGurk finds out more about the powers he or she will have.

SOMEONE who will understand the difficulties facing older people and have powers to bring about change to improve their lives - this, in essence, is what is hoped will be provided by the creation of an Older People’s Commissioner. The establishment of a commissioner here would be a groundbreaking development - the only other comparable commissioner is in Wales. He or she would be a champion for older people, in the same way the Children’s Commissioner has been for children and young people.

In 2008 former head of the Equality Commission Dame Joan Harbison was appointed as the new Older People's Advocate, an interim measure pending the establishment and appointment of a commissioner. Last month a Bill to create a commissioner was introduced into the Assembly and following the Assembly process, it is hoped someone will be appointed in February or March of next year. The post has received widespread backing, but some, including Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliot, have expressed concerns about the estimated £1.5 million annual costs. He said that "in a time of financial constraint its £1.5 million annual budget may be a choice between having a Commissioner or having front-line services”.

“I want to see something that benefits olderpeople without taking away from the system in which it is engaged. Getting that right is a huge challenge for the Assembly. If it is not got right at this stage, it will not be resolved for years to come. We could end up with a lame-duck commissioner costing taxpayers money and producing none of the benefits for older people that we envisage it should,’’ he added.

However Age NI and Age Sector Platform, have, with their We Agree campaign, been very vocal about the benefits an Older People’s Commissioner would bring. In a joint statement they said: ‘’Ageing affects all of us. In 20 years the number of people over 60 in Northern Ireland will double to 600,000, which means that people of all ages have a vested interest in the passage of this Bill and its potential to impact on all our lives. Indeed 82 per cent of people in Northern Ireland believe that older
people need an independent body outside government that champions their needs and rights.

“We believe that the development of an Older People’s Commissioner is an investment, a much needed step toward creating a society for all ages, where people in later life are valued and enabled to contribute positively. “This matters to everyone. We urge people of all ages to sign up in support of the ‘We Agree’ campaign. Visit the website at www.weagree.org.uk; or for those not online, a freepost postcard is available to sign and return. At this important stage in the process you can still influence the powers and duties of the forthcoming Older People’s Commissioner by writing to your local MLA.

For more information or copies of the campaign sign up postcard please contact Michele Smyth (project leader) on 028 9024 5729 or email michele.smyth@ageni.org.

For more information: Call Age NI Advice: 0808 808 7575