The Peter Pans of Hounslow High Street

30 April 2001

“Nothing to do with me, mate,” said the man in his 30s as he strode past. “Not interested,” said the little old lady scuttling in the other direction. I stood there, forlornly waving an almost-unsigned petition.

It was my most profoundly depressing experience since I was selected as a PPC.

The occasion was a busy Saturday morning in Hounslow High Street, border country between my seat and the neighbouring seat of Brentford and Isleworth where my counterpart is throwing himself with enthusiasm into publicising one of the Liberal Democrats’ big success stories.

An independent Royal Commission on long-term care set up by Labour after the 1997 election recommended the introduction of free personal care for the elderly. But Labour in Westminster ignored the findings, leaving the sick and disabled in long-term care to risk losing their homes in order to pay for a bit of dignity.

In Scotland, where we share power with Labour, we have persuaded them to implement the whole of the report, with the result that personal care will be free north of the border. You could argue that it was the result of Liberal Democrats having a positive influence on the Scottish Executive’s policy. Alternatively, you could argue that as we hold the balance of power, we’ve got ’em by the balls.

Either way, like the abolition of student tuition fees – another Scottish Lib Dem battle honour – it’s something we’re campaigning to roll out across the whole country, hence the petitioning in the High Street.

When the time came to count the signatures at the end of the day there were hundreds, so it was clearly a success.

But what I personally remember from that morning isn’t so much the friendly conversations with the people who did sign (and there were many) – it’s the people who hurried by. It’s truly incredible, and deeply disappointing, how many people seem to think that provision for the elderly and infirm is not their problem.

I really don’t understand why. We all – if we’re lucky – grow old. We’ll all need caring for some day. And yet people told me it was nothing to do with them. It was as if they couldn’t handle being brought face to face with their own mortality – or perhaps they believed that, like Peter Pan, they would never grow old.

Whichever, the clash between their indifference and my idealism made me grateful for a bit of variety when one man, intending to be rude, snarled: “The last thing I want on a Saturday morning is politics.”

I felt like telling him that, if only for a moment, I knew exactly what he meant.