Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 487)


8 MARCH 2005Mr Mervyn Kohler, Mr Steven Sadler and Mr Robert Diamond

  Q480  Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: Just an aside on packaging, some packaging works well—fruit juice cartons are opened easily whereas milk cartons seem to fall to pieces when you pull back the plastic thing; nuts too, a lot of nut packets open easily—I am not a peanut eater—so there is a lot of variation. I would have thought that could be a selling point, that some people could be promoting the ease of opening their packaging perhaps, not just for the elderly but more generally perhaps, it is an irritant for us all. My question really is about the fact that promoting things for elderly people does not have the appeal and glamour that it has when promoting things for young people; do you think the Government should be doing more, either to provide information or to encourage initiatives and firms in this direction? Should there be more in the way of Government initiatives on this front? There are financial implications for Government of course.

  Mr Kohler: I think we have simply got to find some tool somewhere that actually breaks the log-jam which we have been exploring over the last hour this morning, and we have somehow got to make the older population a little bit more aware of its own capacity to influence the marketplace as well. Many of the products aimed specifically at older people tend to have a kind of doom flavour about them, do they not, in the sense that you are marketing this because you, the purchaser, have a disability of some sort. We are all in denial about that, none of us actually want to say we are now old or disabled, we need help, and so on and so forth, so something has got to change. Somewhere it would be useful to be thinking of some sort of quality mark or something of that nature which could be attached to goods or services, such as the crystal mark that the Plain English Campaign have used—though I have not got a great deal of confidence in that, but energy efficiency ratings and things like that. There would then be some recognisable consumer message associated with that particular product which shows we actually thought about this in designing it for an older person.

  Mr Diamond: If I could just build on that, I have experience of working and living in the US and there they have a consumer body known as the AARP or the American Association of Retired Persons, which operates as a commercial and almost quasi-political body in influencing manufacturers to listen to and be responsive to the needs of an ageing population. My perception is that they do a very good job and they have truly harnessed people power in using the power of their members, of which they have many in the US market. I sense in the UK we lack a single consumer body—rather ironically, outside of the listenership of Classic FM or the membership of Saga—we literally lack a harmonised consumer body that can go to manufacturers or service providers and put meaningful pressure on them. In terms of whether the Government should do something, I have to say that my preference would be for something which is more self-regulated within the industry. Within the marketing and advertising industry it happens to be the case that there are a number of effective bodies who are involved in self-regulation of the industry and I think those bodies could do a lot more than they do currently to educate, inform and guide their members.

  Mr Sadler: I am not a marketeer, but if I could comment on a theme which seems to have a remarkable effect in terms of our sort of product, and that is about, if you like, humanising the story behind the product and the marketing. We have had experience of lots of case studies—and I am thinking particularly of the Scottish council we referred to earlier—where they had older people who were allowed to live independently rather than moving to residential or nursing home care. It was not that they had a problem with nursing home care, of course, but a lot of people wanted to live independently. There were a number of case studies, but if I could mention one in particular, it was a case study of an older couple, the chap was in the early stages of a dementia condition and the lady had a mobility problem. Until that point the standard social care solution was going to be to separate that couple; they had effectively been joined at the hip for many years, they had survived two world wars and heaven knows how many grandchildren and offspring, they had this fantastically rich history behind them, yet our solution was going to be to separate them and move them. The point I am making is that the outcome meant they were able to live at home for three or four years longer together before they had to take another step. The reason I am mentioning that story is because we use that as a case study for designers, the same young designers that we have been talking about, who can be vulnerable to not capturing these needs. Some of the designers when we use this case study end up with tears in their eyes, so the point I am making is that if you can humanise those stories rather than a broader marketing message and show the rich history behind the end user, you can get quite a strong message across. If you can pick up those various success stories, roll them out and publicise them that might be one initiative we can take, but that one has such a powerful effect it sticks in my mind vividly.

  Q481  Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: Where is the United Kingdom in relation to other developed countries in terms of its progress towards helping aged people in developing products? Are there lacunae that we need to really identify and do something about or alternatively are we leading in certain areas that we should be very proud of? Where are we?

  Mr Sadler: That is a good question. I have the luxury of sampling quite a few different countries because of the nature of our work, and you see a great deal of innovation in certain countries such as Holland and Japan and, to some extent, in the United States. My personal perception is in that in the sort of technology we are dealing with in terms of telecare and support in the home, the UK very much leads, which is fortunate for the UK, but there are examples where we do not. I am thinking there of telemedicine, monitoring of bodily vital signs and so on where there is some very new technology, and we are working to bring that into the UK and integrating the system rather than developing home-grown solutions. It is fairly patchy and broadly my perception is very much that we could benefit hugely from selective telecare components.

  Q482  Lord Broers: Can I come back to the point about IT solutions, and then I would like to probe what Mr Diamond said about the American Association of Retired Persons because I link the two together. In terms of IT products, in this country there is a reluctance, a sort of fear, as Lord Soulsby was saying. In the States I would say it is otherwise, the grandparents are the experts and Florida is filled with people surfing the net—at least, that is my impression. Are there things we can learn over there about this, or have I had a false impression?

  Mr Sadler: If you talk specifically about IT and internet access I think that is absolutely right. Whether that relates in some respects to distances in the United States I do not know, but if I cite one example, the success of telemedicine in the United States, it was very much driven by the physical separation of the cared-for person and the carer, doctor or whoever, so geography has an impact there. There has been the suggestion that that has been the cause of some of the interest in the internet because you have grandmother physically dislocated by some distance from other family members and so on. I do not know if I have answered your question, but I think that is one factor.

  Q483  Chairman: I suppose one of the differences there is that geography intervenes in this country in that you are dealing with very small numbers, whereas in the States a very large proportion of the population live in dispersed situations.

  Mr Sadler: It is a larger market than the UK.

  Mr Diamond: That affects both the development and then also the selling and the marketing of a product, because obviously you can amortise your costs over a much greater universe. The only other comment I would make, having at the end of last year gone to speak at a conference in Palm Beach, Florida, which appears to be the spiritual home of the retired senior in America, is just about being inclusive. I think there is a perception that the American culture is more inclusive of an ageing population and certainly there is great provision made, both in Palm Beach but also in other areas as well, for elderly consumers in terms of how they shop and where they shop and so on. Again, how much of it is driven by the geographical size of the country or by the volume of consumers that manufacturers can then afford to invest in, I do not know, it needs further discussion.

  Mr Kohler: Or indeed, as Lord Broers was suggesting, the part played by the American Association of Retired People who have succeeded in championing the older population in the United States and putting a very positive face on the idea of ageing in society. It is a matter of great regret and sadness that Help the Aged has been unable to emulate that percentage rate in the United States.

  Q484  Baroness Emerton: This is a question on fundraising, particularly aimed at Help the Aged. Every charity is experiencing difficulty in fundraising, but I wonder, is the climate in relation to the older population making it more difficult in fundraising and are the public, in relation to the expectancy of a longer life, inclined to be more generous in their fundraising efforts or not?

  Mr Kohler: No, I do not think they are. It is a fairly widely shared axiom in the charitable world that fundraising for children and animals is much easier than any other causes, and I am sure that fundraising for older people is fairly far down the track. We struggle, particularly, to get corporate sponsorship and fundraising from industry and commerce; the association for a company with an organisation representing older people is not yet seen to be particularly exciting, with one singular exception, which is British Gas, who recognised that their customer base was largely the older population and were quite happy therefore to build a link with Help the Aged, and there is a power company which has got a similar link with Age Concern. In terms of public appeal, I think older people do have a fairly low profile and low pulling power in charitable terms. In disaster situations such as on Boxing Day last year, one hears so much about the children who have been abandoned and things like that, and the media is not covering the older population who equally got involved in that way.

  Lord Turnberg: I just wanted to ask a question relevant to what this Committee is about, which is the scientific aspects of ageing, and we are interested particularly in ensuring that good research is pursued into ageing, and also in ensuring that the fruits of research are applied. We have been discussing predominantly the application of what we know and how that can get out to the population we are talking about, but it seems that we need better drivers to ensure that the technological developments that we were hearing from Lord Drayson are put in place, and we need better drivers to ensure that those who can market these to the relevant audience are able to do so. What advice would you give us that we should put into our report that would help all of that? It was not on the list of questions, but really if we are to write a report we want to make a series of recommendations that will have an impact. I personally quite like the idea of following the American Association of Retired Persons as a lever, but what about others?

  Q485  Chairman: This is your moment.

  Mr Sadler: It is interesting to look at this because you can bring this full circle back to funding issue that we talked about, in the sense that the Government is already doing quite a bit. If you look, for example, at the issues on independent living where pipeline funding is there, that is a very good start to the process, but I think the issue that comes up time and time again is whether there is the facility to make sure we actually go ahead and deliver this? So where is the audit mechanism to make sure that with the £80 million of extra funding that has just been announced, at the end of the day we are not just priming the pump but are able to pipe the water, and I think you can cut that all the way across the elements we have been discussing today. For example, the awareness of engineers and training initiatives, you can take lots of one-off exercises and you can prime that funding for that technology and take the initiative of training, the point being that it is the continuity of much of this that matters, so that for future generations the training of engineers is on the agenda, to design for different end users. In the same way the marketers, when they do their training, need to understand the scope of the various market segments. I see these things quite often as one-off initiatives rather than as something that is embedded and learned. I think therefore that the continuity element is vital. If we take a prime example, there should be a recommendation on the audit process that follows up on the granting of funding we talked about earlier.

  Mr Kohler: I think there is room for looking at the way in which we construct some of our education and training packages for people who are involved in this area of work. The point about the good news story that I will tell the Committee about is the design age unit down at the Royal College of Arts which has been running now for about 15 years or so, where the students are encouraged—not encouraged, they are pretty well compelled—to actually sit down with a group of older people to talk about the product they are thinking of designing so that they are able to get the feeling from the end user of what to put into the designing and thinking process behind it all. It must be possible to actually replicate models of good practice like that in a wider way.

  Q486  Chairman: Interestingly, in the Royal College of Art it has been significantly supported by charitable donation rather than by public funds or industrial funds.

  Mr Diamond: In a similar way we took a project to Central St Martin's School of Art and Design, which I think is one of the top art schools in the UK, and two years ago we held a competition there and we sponsored a place for individuals to reinterpret how marketing and advertising to an older consumer might work, and we then commissioned an individual to develop some specific campaigns. Just coming back to your question about specific detail, I have a strong preference for education rather than legislation and I think that certainly in the community that I work in, within the marketing world, of which advertising is a subset, there are a number of existing trade bodies who I think could work more effectively to raise awareness of the facts, to raise aware of existing initiatives and existing organisations. One educational organisation that on a commercial basis I have been desperate to build a relationship with is the University of the Third Age, who I perceive from my parents and in-laws and am informed by the UTA themselves are almost building elements of what the AARP have successfully built in the US in terms of skills transfer, membership and so on. I think that precious few marketers—unless their parents are members—have ever thought about the rather crude but commercial opportunity of partnering with an organisation like the UTA, who themselves would need to be a little more open to commercial conversations than they have been in my experience. I think that is an opportunity where education coming through existing training bodies could be very beneficial.

  Q487  Lord Drayson: I would just like to explore one aspect which we have not touched yet around entrepreneurship. In the context of Government policy, obviously successive Governments have put a lot of effort into encouraging young people to think about being self-employed and starting their own companies and so on. Do you think there is an argument to say that the Government should put similar efforts into encouraging older people, who perhaps have retired from a career in industry, to go into business as an entrepreneur and targeting this particular market, given that they will better understand their market, being of that age, but also research shows that people over 50 who start companies tend to be more successful than people under 50. I would be interested in your views on that.

  Mr Kohler: I think it is certainly very true that the Government puts very little effort into the older population in relation to the world of work altogether. The number of re-training courses and things like that available to older people is pitifully small, which is why we still have this pretty large problem which the Government has been making much of over the last couple of months of the number of elderly people on incapacity benefit. They are unemployed, to all intents and purposes, not necessarily incapable of work, but there are not the schemes and the offers to encourage them back to the workforce. You are quite right, the dimension in which they would be coming back to the workforce would be as a self-employed individual, or setting up one's own business, but the support mechanisms are just not there from any publicly funded source of support.

  Mr Diamond: It is a very interesting topic, and as an entrepreneur putting together my board non-executives at the moment, it is amazing how few people of my own generation feature on it. I think that clearly the experience that might have been gained in the work environment over a number of years should be allowed to flourish in an entrepreneurial way and, while I believe that entrepreneurialism really cannot be taught, it is something that people can grow up with and experience. In many ways it is about providing people with the opportunity to express their inherent and latent entrepreneurial nature without feeling that they are compromising whatever pension plans they have in place or whatever benefits they may be receiving. I think it is very, very powerful and while I am aware of Government initiatives to encourage entrepreneurialism amongst younger people—aware but not having experienced any of them—I think there is a profoundly interesting opportunity to provide a platform. Again I come back to the University of the Third Age, which I know only a limited amount about, but that has a non-commercial goal which almost performs against the entrepreneurial spirit, which is that we all have different skills and by sharing our skills we all have more boats and we all become more capable and talented. I do not think it would be a large step to apply that to a more commercial and entrepreneurial environment. It is very interesting.

  Chairman: You should get them to read about Voltaire who, at the age of 74, made a killing in the Swiss watch market by spotting a gap in the market—an amazing story. However, we ought to stop now; it has been a very interesting session, very helpful, both your written comments and the discussion we have had which has been an excellent discussion. If there occur to you thoughts or answers to some of the questions that we have thrown out willy-nilly, where you think I would like to have said X or Y and I did not really think about Z, please do get in touch with us by e-mail or through the Clerk and give us the benefit of your thoughts, that would be much appreciated. In the meantime, many thanks.

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