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Toby Banks

The price of butter

So far this winter, three pensioners have died of hypothermia contracted while queuing for their free packet of EC butter. With an election imminent, Her Majesty's opposition will surely have to make an issue of this disgraceful state of affairs.

Of late, Labour has challenged the government in areas the Tories consider their own. When the Tories caned the 'trendy teachers', nineties Labour hit back with its own 'parents' charter' promising early bedtimes for kids and classrooms full of books without pictures. When the government moved to crack down on squatters, they probably anticipated a Labour outcry about the rundown of council housing stock. Instead, Labour MP Joe Ashton denounced 'this rich man's bill' which would protect big houses in Knightsbridge while doing nothing for ordinary communities besieged by Gypsies. Shadow minister Kevin McNamara's trenchant defence of Peter 'Clementine' Brooke after his televised error of judgement managed to outdo the Tory backbenchers, and had Unionists fondly remembering the days of Roy 'Butcher' Mason.

Back to the three pensioners. Which party is going to grasp the nettle? In the Commons there were a few half-hearted protests about the indignity of people who had been through the war having to end their days queuing for food rations, but nobody really felt the issue to be worth pursuing. The government probably preferred to let the matter drop, in case it stirred up debate about the Christmas pension bonus (still £10--that's worth nearly ten bob in the old money). As it turned out, they needn't have worried, because Labour was not disposed to make an issue of it either. Gerald Kaufman understandably preferred to save his indignation for those Labour voters who proudly fought in more recent wars in the Falklands and the Gulf, and who now face redundancy and hardship on civvy street thanks to the new defence cuts.

Whatever the merits of handouts for pensioners, there are surely other serious issues that arise from the affair.

First, and most obvious, is the question of what happened to the three unclaimed packets of butter. Do the authorities know? With daily news bulletins reminding us of the thriving black market in Eastern Europe, it is extraordinary that no emergency measures have been passed to close this loophole. The government's swift action against joyriders shows that, when a crisis demands it, MPs of all shades will put aside their petty differences and ensure a swift passage for urgent legislation.

Surely a simple measure, such as dying EC surplus food stocks green, would enable the security forces to locate any misappropriated rations? Those basically honest old folk who may be tempted to 'borrow' a neighbour's pension book and queue twice (or three times) would think again before obtaining extra rations by deception. As for the hardcore criminals - who exist in the elderly community as they do elsewhere - a few exemplary sentences for those implicated in big-time rackets should deal with them.

A second aspect is more serious. Aside from the cases mentioned above, there is the national scandal of thousands of pensioners dying of hypothermia, alone - Britain has the highest death toll in the EC. Most are not found until days after death. How many people discovering a body in such circumstances would have the presence of mind to look for the deceased's passport and deliver it safely to a police station? Yet recent correspondence in the press has revealed widespread concern about the ease with which 'terrorists' acquire stolen passports. Senior politicians have an extremely complacent attitude to these deaths. They prefer to believe that most pensioners do not have passports, despite evidence that old people are travelling abroad more than ever. Barclays Bank even has an advertisement offering financial assistance to old servicemen wishing to attend war reunions on the Continent.

Junior health minister Virginia Bottomley is currently 'looking into' the Buxton Chair - a restraining device used in nursing homes. Pensioners are strapped in 'for their own protection', a practice described as 'barbaric' and 'belonging to the nineteenth century'. A tabloid paper is running a campaign to have it banned. My own hunch is that Mrs Bottomley has other intentions.

For a start, the government is generally in favour of all things nineteenth century. As for the 'barbaric' aspect, last month's House of Lords debate on instruments of torture showed the official approach to be pragmatic. Discussion focused on a prisoner who had been shackled with leg irons in an African jail. The leg irons had been manufactured by a respected firm in Birmingham, and their lordships were at pains to point out that the company could not be held responsible for what customers did with its products. It was argued that a corset becomes a torture implement when done up too tight, but that nobody would ban corsets.

When pressed on the matter, the pro-leg iron lords could not think of a use for them other than coercion. However, they reassured the House that this country is in line with European legislation because since 1983 it has been illegal in Britain to manufacture these items for export. At the end of the debate someone remarked that since leg irons are still manufactured and sold quite legally on the domestic market, perhaps the ban should be extended to the UK. But the matter was left there.

The conclusion was clear: British society is mature enough to accept that restraint and even coercion can be necessary. Viewed from this perspective, the future of the Buxton Chair Company looks more promising. As a nurse from a Maidstone old people's home said: 'They are horrible, but they do serve a purpose.'

Peter Brooke never tires of telling those people who call for internment in Ireland that surprise is of the essence. Could it be that, under cover of seemingly unrelated debates, the Tories are laying the ground for an audacious pre-election initiative - the mass internment and Buxton Chairing of 'at risk' passport-holding pensioners living in unheated accommodation?

It would be risky. Many of those rounded up would be Tory supporters, familiar with their rights to postal votes. They may well vote for Paddy Ashdown as a protest. Perhaps a Buxton Deluxe could be used in marginal constituencies, with a 'cheap and cheerful' model for the rest. RAF hangars would be an ideal economical site for accommodation.

Of course it is a shame that many people would be deprived of the comfort of dying in the reassuring surroundings of their own home. But any extra deaths resulting from this measure - and there would be many - would be considered by most responsible politicians to be a price worth paying to close down another avenue of escape for the real enemies of freedom.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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