PENSIONERS were invited to voice their greatest worries yesterday – using a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-style voting system.
Called the Pensioners’ Parliament, the gathering posed a series of questions to those in attendance about their day-to-day concerns, then asked them to vote using electronic keypads – with the results appearing on a giant screen.
The event is run by a charity called Age Sector Platform and it uses the results to draw up its list of priorities when it is campaigning and lobbying politicians.
Kicking it off with a test question, the charity’s CEO described their multiple-choice voting system as being “pretty much the same” as that used on the famous gameshow.
He asked the ‘parliament’ to vote on the question: How many Belfast Marathons have there been?
“Can we phone a friend, Eddie?” shouted one voice from the back.
A majority got the answer wrong – the correct answer being 31.
But then the gathering turned their attention to more serious matters. They were told that Northern Ireland has the highest rate of fuel poverty in the UK (that is, when householders spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating their home).
According to the charity this includes close to half Ulster’s population, especially the elderly, and 79 per cent of pensioners in a previous poll told them keeping warm in winter is a concern.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, following a discussion on fuel poverty, 99 per cent of those in attendance voted in favour of calling for the warm homes discount scheme (which can offer £130 off energy bills to some on low incomes) to be extended from mainland Britain to Ulster.
Also high on the agenda was crime – although it emerged that while the fear of falling prey to criminals was high, the actual chances of it happening were far lower.
Asked whether they had been worried about crime in general over the last year, 76 per cent said yes.
Twenty-one per cent said they do not go out alone at night and 15 per cent said that they did not feel safe at home at night.
But when asked how many had been victims of crime in one form of another over the last year, 92 per cent said they had not.
Of the remaining eight per cent, most said they had been burgled.
Comments from the floor included calls for more visible police officers – specifically, a demand that they be seen walking about, not driving – tougher sentences and even a call from one delegate for a night-time curfew in rough areas.
Another woman suggested self-defence classes for the elderly.
Lasting much of the morning and into the afternoon, the Belfast parliament will be followed by regional gatherings and a larger two-day gathering of around 200 in May.
Among those in attendance was Matt McCullough, a 68-year-old hospital maintenance worker from the Sandy Row area, who attended the event last year and opted to return this year.
“I find it’s a talking shop; it gives people an ‘out’ for any concerns they may have which is a good thing – nothing wrong with that. Not that they’ll have any fruitful outcome to these outpourings, but it gives them a voice.”
One of those who had his say from the floor on a number of issues was George Bell, a 68-year-old Dundonald man who is semi-retired from his role as a management lecturer.
He said: “I think the main concerns for people are income, the economy – and I think the context of people’s fears is that they have ‘put in’ all their lives.
“This generation, when you look at the health service, they had a contract with it ‘from cradle to grave’.”
Asked about his own objective, he said: “My underlying thinking is: is there an emerging grey political pressure group – like the greens were? We might be in the early stages.
“How do you make grey power articulate itself within government?
“I think this is happening, but not in a totally co-ordinated way yet.”