Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 27 February 2001 (continued)
I have some difficulty with one of the motions in particular, because I have read the report of the very contentious and heated debate on this in the Scottish Parliament. A Committee held an inquiry into how those recommendations would fit with Scotland and came up with recommendations very similar to the Royal Commission's report, yet the Executive did not accept the Committee's report. Would that ever happen here? I recall that exactly that happened here with another Committee's report, so there is a parallel to be drawn with the decision of the Scottish Executive on the Royal Commission's report. It could not budget for this particular recommendation.
I realise that, for obvious reasons, the Member was not here at the start, but I made a point then about what the Scottish Executive had done. I quote from Mr Chisholm, the Deputy Minister for Health and Community Care in Scotland:
"In the Scottish Parliament we shall draw proposals for the implementation of free personal care for all. We accept the principle of Sutherland".
There is no doubt that the Scottish Executive have committed themselves to that principle, as the Minister said himself. That is what a lot of the earlier debate focused on.
I apologise for coming late to the debate - I was attending the conference of the Registered Homes Confederation at the Waterfront Hall on this very issue. It is rare that the Assembly debates a motion on the same day as a major conference on a related subject. This one was on the lack of residential and nursing care and the ongoing crisis with that.
There was also contention about whether the Scottish debate was a take-note debate or an action debate. In the end Malcolm Chisholm would only accept it as a take-note debate. The Scottish Executive are going to wait another six months before making a decision on whether they will fund this aspect of the Royal Commission's report
I raise this here because it is fundamental to our debate that Members understand that we are not functioning in such a way as to cover the costs of nursing and personal care. My understanding is that care for the elderly is in crisis. In the independent sector in the past two years there has been a loss of 1,500 beds because current costs could not be met and because fees have been set at such a level that many independent homes have had to close.
I am concerned that statutory homes are closing. The South and East Belfast Health and Social Services Trust has written to the appropriate Assembly Members informing them that there is a possibility that three of its homes may close following consultation over the next few months. If both statutory and independent homes are closing, perhaps the Minister will not have a problem, because she will not have to pay for the increases demanded by the Royal Commission - there will be fewer and fewer beds for elderly people seeking residential and nursing care. Homes are unable to cover costs because they inherited costs that were set by income support rates and because the increases have depended on accommodation only. The Royal Commission's report is important because it only takes account of accommodation needs, out of which the costs of the training and development of workers who come into that sector must be paid.
I am sure that other Members have already spoken about dedication and the high levels of training that are needed to look after vulnerable people with dementia. There is no funding to cover these training costs. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that the statutory sector currently costs more than the independent sector. My understanding is that it possibly costs £100 a week per patient more than the independent sector. That clearly requires a response.
I am not suggesting that we should have one sector or the other - we need both. All our elderly cannot be cared for in independent homes, although I do support those schemes. Given the demographics of the over-75s, this sector will have to be funded in the future. The number of beds to be maintained in the independent sector is not covered in the current budget and is not, therefore, a target under public service agreements. Although there is a recommendation about fee levels, we also need to budget. Before we support this motion we need to take the current state of affairs into account.
I welcome the opportunity of contributing to the debate. Several fundamental questions underpin the motions. What value does society place on older people? What value does the Assembly place on older people? What value do the Executive place on older people? What value do the Minister and her Department place on older people? There has been much research on the subject, but unfortunately, inside six minutes, we will not be able to refer to the various elements of care that are required for elderly people - primary care, care in the community, acute care and residential care, all of which make an important contribution to the support of the elderly.
I want to concentrate on care in the community. We have a document from the director of social services, 'Annual Assessment of Need 2000', which clearly indicates, on page 65, what the projected increase in the number of older people in the Southern Board's area will be. By the year 2013, 54,800 older people will be living in the Southern Board's area, an increase of 29% from 1998 - just two short years ago. When we think of care in the community we have to pose the question "Are we really a caring community?" I have come to the conclusion that because of the pace of modern life, the emphasis placed on secularism and achieving one's goals in this world, as well as the fragmentation of the extended family unit, more and more of our older people are falling into the vulnerable category. The director of social services identified two important facets in the document. Two of the biggest concerns for older people have been the need to ensure sufficient income to live on and the question of who will pay for residential care if it becomes necessary.
One of the problems with community care is the inordinate waiting time for occupational therapist assessments. In my area of Portadown, a 94-year-old person who lives alone has been waiting for up to two years to have an assessment carried out. In the Craigavon and Banbridge Community Health and Social Services Trust area, the current waiting list for occupational therapist assessment is 1,200, whereas last year it was 643. Waiting time has practically doubled, which is completely unacceptable as it gives older people a feeling of uncertainty and the sense that they are past their sell-by date. Uncertainty over when they will get an assessment leads to frustration, to a feeling of insecurity and to a feeling that they have been forgotten about. That is why the debate is both relevant and timely. I trust that every Member will support the motions before us.
Some £1 million was made available for care in the community recently, but half of that sum went towards staff costs - an extra 30 staff, 20 of whom are only for priority cases. The other half went towards the purchase of about 40 wheelchairs, according to the information that I have been provided with. That shows the immense problem that care in the community is facing through inadequate resources. In the various reports that have come before us in recent times, gaps in community care have been well identified and well documented. We need to address those gaps. If we are going to believe in the concept of care in the community, we have to find the resources and the funding to make it work, otherwise our older people will continue to feel disillusioned, disappointed and forgotten about.
I started off with the question "What value does society really place on older people?", and I will finish with the same question. I hope that Members will face up to answering that question in an open and honest way and find the necessary resources to make our older people feel valued and respected.
This debate is on a matter of great importance. As Mr Dodds put it, the elderly are a large and growing section of our population and deserve all our concern.
There are also severe inequities and injustices in the current system, and that was well put by Mr McCarthy in his proposing speech. We should take note of the Sutherland report, but alongside that there are two notes of caution.
Monica McWilliams sounded the first of these notes, which is that the Scottish Parliament's position is not a "done deal". A cynic might point out that the announcement was made ahead of the general election and that actual implementation - if, indeed, there is to be implementation - may follow in the autumn. We will have to wait and see if that will happen. Some Members here are familiar with the technique of adopting positions ahead of elections. [Laughter]. Members may well laugh.
The second note of caution is that we need to be aware of the entire Sutherland Report. I would point to the dissident note by Joffe and Lipsey. They suggest that the main body - hence the main proposals of the Sutherland Report - have seriously underestimated the implications of their recommendations in respect of the required increase in Government spending. Joffe and Lipsey put forward two reasons for that, which seem to bear some weight.
The first reason is that the rate of cost inflation in health care is several percentage points ahead of the general rate of inflation in the economy as a whole. Secondly, when the price of any service is reduced, including that of health care or personal care, the demand for that service is not likely to stay constant. It may increase precisely because it is now cheaper. We have a marked historical precedent. When the National Health Service was set up in 1948 it was predicted at the time that the amount spent on it would eventually fall as the population became more healthy. In fact, as we now know, with straining health budgets at local and national level, the budget for the NHS has multiplied many times since 1948. I would point out to some Members that at no point since 1950 have we had free-at-the-point-of-use health care in the United Kingdom. That situation is even more the case in the Republic of Ireland.
I also suggest that we take note of Joffe and Lipsey's point that if we go down the route of universal free personal care, that will inevitably mean that the limited pot of money that the Government have to direct towards the care of the elderly will not all be spent on the poor elderly - some will be spent on the well-off elderly.
To sum up, in the consideration of this matter it will be inevitable that hard choices will have to be made. It may be that we will decide that some of the burden for long-term care should be borne by the private sector through the use of private insurance. Therefore it is important not make premature decisions that would knock the development of such private insurance on the head. In the end this care will have to be paid for by all individuals in society either by general taxation or through private insurance, and we need to strike a judicious balance. Therefore I support the motion, subject to adequate considerations being given to the Sutherland Report in its entirety, including the crucial issue of the costings of the recommendations.
What we are discussing this morning has often been described by other civilisations as the venerable state of the elderly. We could look at those other civilisations and see how they care for the elderly.
What we are talking about this morning is, to some extent, restoring dignity and independence to people who have reached that age and giving them the ability to enjoy an active and healthy life.
In the 1990s many expectations were raised. We had hospital charters, community charters and charters for health. All of those have had to be stripped from the hospital notice boards and from community services walls. There has been a failure to deliver and respect those who have served society.
This debate is welcome in that it is an opportunity for the Assembly to view the Sutherland Report and to listen to the concerns expressed by various agencies: the Chest, Heart and Stroke Association, Alzheimer's Disease Society in Northern Ireland and Age Concern. All those groups have been progressively enunciating one factor, which embodied in Nigel Dodds's proposal: you cannot distinguish effectively between nursing care and personal care.
It is an exercise that will be carried out by those who seem to hold some form of esoteric information, but I think that the two forms of care are indistinguishable. The principle that Mr Dodds enunciated is the important one to take on board as an Assembly and we say, to ourselves and to the people that we represent, that we wish to establish the principle of free care - both nursing and personal. That is the principle under discussion this morning.
We are all too aware of how community care has become a devalued phrase in our society. It was once hailed as the means of retaining people in the community and restoring to the very group of people we are discussing a better quality of life in their own homes where they would prefer to live. We have discovered, and every one of us knows, that many elderly people receive only 15 minutes care in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon, and after that they have to fend for themselves.
The very points mentioned earlier by Dr Hendron were crucial. The routines of care that we so freely give to the under-16s - immunisations, weekly, monthly or yearly checks - should be available at the other end of the age range. Eyesight and hearing examinations and all the normal facilities should be on an annual routine check to prevent many of the ailments that are ignored because the elderly cannot get to the doctor or do the things that the more able-bodied can do. The principle of care has got to be established, and I strongly support that.
Many people, who have a great affection for their parents, give up their jobs or take a sabbatical from their careers to care for them. However, it does not pay carers to love their parents or an elderly person. They lose whatever salary they had, and the maximum that they can get for 24 hours of tender loving care of a loved one is £66 and some odd pence. We are not a caring society. If we were we would manage our resources. There will be difficulties with resources. However, we accept the principle of free nursing and personal care.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Uasal McCarthy, leis an Uasal Dodds agus leis an Uasal Paisley as na saincheisteanna tábhachtacha seo a thabhairt go hUrlárz an Tí. D'éist mé go cúramach leis na pointí luachmhara a rinne Comhaltaí le linn na díospóireachta, agus, cosúil leo féin, is cúram domh gur chóir go mbeadh seandaoine, ag céim an-leochaileach ina saol, saor ó bhuaireamh breise agus iad ag déanamh cinntí faoina sláinte agus faoina gcúram sóisialta.
Rachaidh cinntí a rinneadh ar chúram na sean i bhfeidhm ar shaolta líon nach beag dár muintir agus a dteaghlach. Tá thart ar 14,500 duine i gcúram cónaitheach agus i gcúram tí altranais anseo. Shocraigh an RSSSP cúram do thart ar 9,500 acu agus riartar ar úsáideoirí eile faoi sholáthar leasa shóisialaigh; sin nó rinne siad a socruithe féin.
Beidh Comhaltaí eolach ar roinnt mórthionscnamh ar thug mé fúthu maidir le cúram pobail le bliain anuas. Feicim go raibh Comhaltaí inniu ag rá gur leithne an cheist í seo ná an ceann a dtugann an rún aghaidh uirthi.
D'fhógair mé aithbhreithniú ar chur i bhfeidhm polasaí cúraim phobail. Tabharfaidh feidhmeannaigh, i gcomhar le boird agus iontaobhais sláinte agus seirbhísí sóisialta agus i gcomhar le réimse leathan páirtithe leasmhara sna hearnálacha deonacha agus príobháideacha, faoi aithbhreithniú forleathan ar chúram pobail. Rachaidh seo i ngleic le maoiniú, le pleanáil agus le soláthar seirbhísí cúraim phobail agus breathnóidh sé ar chomhéadain idir an cúram príomhúil, an cúram tánaisteach agus an cúram pobail. Déanfaidh siad moltaí le haghaidh leasuithe i soláthar seirbhísí cúraim phobail. Mar mhórúsáideoirí na seirbhísí seo bheinn ag dúil go mbainfeadh ár seandaoine sochar as feabhsúcháin ar bith a d'aimseofaí agus a chuirfí i bhfeidhm.
Dáilead airgead breise ar chúram pobail. I mbliana dháil mé £11 mhilliún sa bhreis go sainiúil ar sholáthar cúraim phobail. Sa bhliain 2001/02 tá £2 mhilliún faighte agam le corradh agus 230 beart cúraim thar an soláthar beartaithe. Arís, is mór a rachas seo chun tairbhe dár seandaoine ós rud é go mbeidh tuilleadh daoine faoi chúram sa bhaile agus i dtimpeallachtaí eile pobail agus beidh laghdú ar scaoilte moillithe ón ospidéal ar ais chuig an phobal.
Tá feidhmeannaigh ag obair ar fhorbairt straitéise do chúramóirí i ndlúthchomhairle le móreagraíochtaí cúramóirí. Tuairsceoidh an grúpa sin faoi dheireadh na bliana seo le moltaí do sheirbhísí a thacóidh le cúramóirí san obair an-luachmhar a dhéanann siad ar son na sochaí seo. D'fhaomh mé cheana doiciméad comhairliúcháin ar ábhar an Carers' and Disabled Children's Bill arb é a chuspóir cearta cúramóirí ar réimse feabhsaithe seirbhísí tacaíochta a chur sa dlí.
Rinneadh cuid mhór cheana le seirbhísí sláinte agus cúraim shóisialta a fheabhsú, ach tá cuid mhór eile le déanamh go fóill. Thug tuairisc an Choimisiúin ar Chúram Fadtéarmach na Sean anailís chuimsitheach ar na dúshláin atá fúinn. Tugann sí deis dúinn díríú ar na saincheisteanna a bhaineas le cúram na sean, agus is mór mo mheas ar an obair atá déanta ag an choimisiún.
I thank Mr McCarthy, Mr Dodds and Mr Paisley Jnr for bringing those important issues to the Floor of the House. I have listened carefully to valuable points made by Members in the debate, and I share their concern that the elderly, at a very vulnerable stage of their lives, should be spared from additional worry when making decisions about their health and social care.
Decisions taken on care for the elderly will impact on the lives of many people and their families. There are about 14,500 people in residential and nursing home care here, and health and personal social services has arranged the care for about 9,500 of those people. The others are provided for by social security or have made their own arrangements.
During the debate, Members stressed the point that the question goes beyond the specifics of the issues raised in today's motions and have mentioned care of the elderly and, in a wider context, care in the community. I have taken several significant initiatives in the area of community care over the past year.
I have announced a review of the implementation of community care policy. That means that a wide-ranging review of community care will be carried out by officials in association with the health and social services boards and trusts and in consultation with a range of interested parties in the voluntary and private sectors. I am sure that Members will welcome it. The review will address the funding, planning and delivery of community care services. It will study the interfaces between primary and secondary community care. The review will make recommendations for improvements in the delivery of community care services. I expect that the elderly - as major users of the services - will benefit from the improvements identified and implemented.
Members referred to the financing of community care. Additional moneys have been allocated to community care. In the current year, I have allocated an additional £11 million to community care provision. In the year 2001? an additional £2 million has been secured to facilitate the delivery of an additional 230 care packages. The elderly will gain substantially from the extra money. More people will be cared for at home and in other community settings, and there will be reductions in the number of delayed discharges from hospital.
Members have stressed the importance of carers. I also pay tribute to the work of carers. Officials are working in close consultation with a major carer's organisation on the development of a strategy for carers. This group will report to me by the end of the calendar year with recommendations for services to support carers in the valuable work that they carry out in society. I have approved a consultation document on the content of the Carer's and Disabled Children Bill. The intention is to enshrine in law the rights of carers to an enhanced range of support services. A lot has already been done to improve health and social care services; but much more needs to be done.
The Royal Commission's report has provided us with a comprehensive analysis of the challenges we face. It presents us with an opportunity to focus on the issues around care for the elderly, and I appreciate the Royal Commission's work.
The Commission has brought forward a number of recommendations. There are two main recommendations. A National Care Commission should be established to monitor trends - including demography and spending - and ensure transparency and accountability in the system, represent the interests of consumers and set national benchmarks now and in the future. Secondly, the costs of long-term care should be split between living costs, housing costs and personal care. Personal care should be available after assessment, according to need and paid for from general taxation. The rest should be subject to a co-payment according to means.
I will clarify the responses elsewhere to the recommendations and outline the actions that I will take. The recommendation to establish a Care Standards Commission has been accepted by the British Labour Government and implemented by the establishment of the National Care Standards Commission. I will bring proposals to the Executive to set, monitor and enforce standards here.
The responses by England, Wales and the Scottish Executive to the recommendation on the costs of long- term care are similar in a number of the less controversial areas. Therefore I will deal with those first. In England, Wales and Scotland, changes will be made to three aspects of the charging regulations. People will be less pressurised to sell their homes when entering care. From April 2001 the capital limits used in means testing will increase from £10,000 and £16,000 to £11,500 and £18,500 respectively. The rates will be kept under review. From April 2001 the value of a resident's home will be disregarded in means testing for the first three months of their stay. From October 2001, local authorities will be given a ring-fenced grant to help with schemes to defer some of the costs of care for people who would otherwise have to sell their homes at an earlier stage.
In line with England, Wales and Scotland, I am taking steps to introduce amending regulations to increase the capital limits from April this year. The Budget has made provision for this in 2001-02. This will mean that, where a care home resident has capital - including, in certain circumstances, the value of his home - of between £11,500 and £18,500, he will be required to meet a proportion of his care costs. Capital and assets valued at less than £11,500 will not be taken into account in the assessment of needs. Those with assets of over £18,500 will be required to meet the full costs of their care.
I am also considering making proposals to exclude the value of a resident's home from the means assessment test during his first three months in a care home, whether his stay is temporary or permanent. This will depend on the provision of additional resources.
On the subject of the ring-fenced grant proposal that was referred to, a different funding structure exists between my Department and the health and social service's boards and trusts, but I will consider the need for a similar scheme here.
There will also be legislation to end both the preserved rights of residents and the residential allowance for new residents in independent homes. One Member queried if that was necessary here. Those in residential care or nursing homes prior to the introduction of the community care changes in 1993 were given preserved rights to the special rates of income support to meet the costs of their care. However, they were not brought into the new health and social services care management arrangements at that time. The decision to bring those residents into the care management arrangements, along with the transfer of related funding from the Social Security Agency, is intended to help and reassure former preserved-rights residents.
The payment of the residential allowance to those in independent accommodation who received state assistance with their costs creates a perverse incentive to place people in care rather than keep them at home. This allowance will no longer apply to new residents, but present recipients will continue to benefit from it, and it will also involve a funding transfer from the Social Security Agency. The consultation on both these issues, which was carried out by my Department last year, revealed strong general support for this change.
The ending of this perverse incentive and the transfer of Social Security Agency funds to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety should give boards greater flexibility in meeting people's care needs. Therefore, I expect to see the provision of more domiciliary care packages through these changes in the funding arrangements.
The Royal Commission on Long-Term Care for the Elderly made many recommendations, the most difficult and sensitive of which is the provision of free personal care. The Royal Commission recommended that personal care be free of charge in residential and nursing-home settings, but the response by the NHS in England and Wales was to limit free provision to nursing care only.
Therefore, from October 2001, the NHS in England and Wales will meet the cost of registered nurses' time spent on providing, supervising or delegating care in a nursing-home setting. Those who are assessed to need such care will no longer have to meet either the costs of the registered nursing staff involved in their care or the cost of any specialist equipment used by staff.
The Departments of Health in England and Scotland are developing standard assessment procedures to determine the level of nursing care needed in individual cases. This will ensure that the cost of this care can be calculated and paid for by health authorities, giving people a realistic assessment of the level of care needed. Members raised that issue this morning.
As some Members have pointed out, the Scottish Executive are establishing an expert development group, chaired by their Minister for Health and Community Care. It will consider the practicalities, the costs and the implications of providing free personal care. The group will report by August 2001 with proposals that will inform Executive expenditure decisions for 2002-03 and beyond.
They are piloting a nationwide single needs assessment for the care of older people - a move that will support the extension of free nursing care to many more people. They are also examining the current sources of public funding for long-term care in Scotland, making it a top priority for additional resources and bringing forward a long-term care Bill to make the necessary legislative changes. Significantly diverging from the planned timetable in England, where free nursing care will be introduced by 1 October 2001, free nursing care will be introduced in Scotland in April 2002 - at the same time as the implementation of a new system of assessment.
Members asked if costing has been undertaken here. Any decision to extend free care for the elderly will bring major budgetary considerations for the Executive as a whole - not merely for my Department. Early estimates indicate that the provision of free personal care could add at least £25 million extra to the annual costs of the health and social services boards. The provision of free personal care is a sensitive and emotive issue, and we are all committed to providing the best we possibly can for those in our society who face these needs.
There are concerns about how care is defined and how the level of care can be assessed in a fair, open and transparent manner. Both England and Scotland are presently developing a standardised method of assessing the level of nursing care needed by an individual. During the debate Members reminded us that we should try to make the most of our integrated service. I intend to establish a working group, chaired by the chief nursing officer, to examine how the need for nursing care can be assessed professionally, in a manner clearly understood by the general public and adding minimum additional bureaucracy. The group will report to me with recommendations in sufficient time to allow the necessary consultation and allow me to introduce legislation to implement the agreed recommendations by April 2002.
The proposals I have outlined will bring about important changes in the care system. There will be changes in legislation to pave the way for free nursing care in all settings: the development of a new system of care needs assessment, improvements in the charging system for care; an end to the income support preserved rights and residential allowance schemes, and additional funding to meet people's care needs better in old age. These proposals are already underpinned by an appropriate funding allocation for 2001-02.
As Members have stated in the debate, we all want to provide the best we can for those who need it in our society. That is how we have approached this question. Any decision to go further than has been allowed for to date in the provision of free care will require the Executive to secure significant additional resources. I am sure that we will return to this point in the future.
First, I want to thank everyone for their contribution, particularly Nigel Dodds, who, as usual, made his case concisely. He brought out the principles of both motions together, which is very important. He made the point that many elderly people are now paying twice for the service they are entitled to. I hope that we can agree and go along with what we are both saying on this.
I welcome Dr Hendron's and the Health Committee's support. The Deputy Chairperson, Mr Gallagher, had some queries, and he suggested a working group. The Minister suggested that that is what she is now going to do in order to look into the Scottish methods and what they propose by way of funding.
I thank and welcome the support of Rev Robert Coulter, Mr John Kelly, Mr Berry and Dr Adamson. I welcome Ms McWilliams's support, although I am slightly worried about her concerns. She told us that in her constituency, there are possible home closures. I am not so sure what the main reason for that is. Questions obviously have to be asked, but I accept Ms McWilliams's concern about training for this work as being a very important aspect of care for the elderly.
I agree entirely with Mr Carrick as regards care in the community. It is currently grossly underfunded. If there were more funding for care in the community - and I think that the Minister mentioned this - there would be less concern at the other end.
I accept Mr Birnie's concern. He mentioned private insurance, and that is probably fair enough. However, there may well be people out there who might not be able to afford private insurance, and we would be left with an inequality. Some people could afford it; others could not. That is a very important issue, for we are trying to avoid inequality.
I thank Mr Gibson for his support and his contribution. The Minister started very well and shared the concerns raised - indeed, the review of the community care policy is very welcome. However, I was somewhat disappointed when she spoke of a means-testing system for some of the elderly. That would cause them concern.
The Minister also talked about what we all know is a big problem. Elderly people come to a point in their lives when they need care, but they do not have to make a decision, since the decision is already made for them. They have to sell their home, their only asset - something that they have worked and lived for or that has been in the family for generations. There is something wrong with a system that expects people at that point in their life to dispose of their assets to pay for care. I am disappointed with the Minister's response.
She mentioned the budgetary Estimates and adding an extra £25 million. That would be nice, although a report produced not so long ago mentioned £65 million that had got lost in the system somewhere - and that is in respect of one Department only. There needs to be efficiency right across all Departments. The Assembly is here to ensure that there is efficiency and that money can be spent on providing what we have been talking about this morning.
I thank all the Members for their support and, indeed, the Minister, who is doing a very difficult job with limited resources.
I want to make one final point. I think we should all pay tribute to the carers, the people who are involved. Everyone in the Assembly knows people who are involved in looking after the elderly. I am sure that they are out this morning, despite the atrocious weather, trying to get to those whom they look after.
Members of the Assembly and other groups outside will be coming to the Minister's door and looking for further improvements.
Would the Member care to comment on the statement that the Minister made in relation to setting up a working group? There may be some misapprehension or some argument that somehow this working group will be looking at the issue of whether free personal care should be made available.
It seems to me - and some clarification may be necessary - that this working group is going to be very limited in its scope as regards dealing with nursing care and the definition thereof. Would it not have been better to have a working group set up to look at the issue that is the crux of the motion before the House today - the provision of free personal care?
I thank Mr Dodds; he is spot on. I hope that the Minister will take note of what he said. The working group should investigate that; it is exactly what we need.
I hope that the Assembly will support both motions and take these matters seriously. It would be a shame if people who required residential or other forms of care were denied such help unless they paid for essential care. Equality is top of our agenda. It was said that we value elderly people, and that is paramount. The Assembly can make a difference. Let us do it now.
Question put and agreed.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to implement in full in Northern Ireland the recommendations contained in the report by the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care published in March 1999.
That this Assembly notes the decision of the Scottish Parliament to provide the elderly with free nursing and personal care and calls on the Executive Committee to make similar provision for the elderly in Northern Ireland and to promote greater well-being of the elderly in this part of the United Kingdom. - [Mr Dodds]
I remind Members to pay attention to the annunciators as some private-notice questions may be coming before the House.
The sitting was suspended at 12.16 pm.
On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -
Mr J Kelly
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in light of today's failure of the electricity supply of 50,000 people in Northern Ireland, to explain what steps are in place to avoid a recurrence of this situation; and to make a statement.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I have spoken to Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) this morning. The company has implemented its emergency procedures and is taking steps to communicate with and restore part power to all consumers as soon as possible. The worst affected areas include Holywood, Lisburn, Downpatrick, Carryduff, Ballyclare, Larne and Ballymena.
NIE has advised that its engineers and linesmen have worked through the night restoring power to thousands of customers throughout Northern Ireland, and the incident management centre at Craigavon has been open since Monday evening. Hundreds of engineers, call handlers and administrative staff have been mobilised to deal with the situation. However, the treacherous driving conditions are hampering staff, particularly call handlers, from getting to where they are needed.
The statutory responsibility for the protection of the interests of electricity consumers in respect of the continuity of supply and quality of supply services provided rests with the independent director general of the electricity supply. Following the December 1998 storms, he sought a full report on the December supply problems from NIE. Subsequently NIE put in place a comprehensive range of measures aimed at dealing with these situations.
The company advises that it has managed to reduce the number of persons off supply from some 70,000 to currently around 60,000, and it advises us that it anticipates that by the end of the evening, most consumers will be back on supply. As a matter of interest, some 30,000 consumers are currently off supply in the Irish Republic. Notwithstanding, I hope that the vast majority of people who are currently in difficulty will find themselves back on supply later this evening.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for coming in to answer the question. When I tabled it this morning there were 50,000 people off supply; then there were 70,000, and I understand that the figure is now 60,000.
I raised the question because of the anger, frustration and disappointment that people feel with NIE. We all remember what happened when we had the storms three years ago and that NIE's response at that time was that it would not happen again.
The employees visited Magherafelt District Council on a charm offensive this month and told us that these things would not happen again. They assured us that in the event of a emergency breakdown, people would have someone at the end of a phone line to answer their queries and questions.
There is also the question of the 9% increase - three times above the rate of inflation - at a time when NIE was making £80 to £90 million in that year. We were told that the money was going back into the infrastructure and into replacing old capital equipment like poles and lines that were susceptible to high winds and to storms. We have to ask how much money has been put back into the infrastructure, and, if it has, why do we still have a system that cannot cope with adverse weather conditions, particularly in the case of a storm that was comparatively mild? Why do we have a system that puts 70,000 people off supply?
We had a debate this morning about the care of the elderly, and the people who are most affected by this situation are the elderly, the young, mothers who are looking after young families, newborn children - [Interruption].
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The question has been put.
Sir Reg Empey:
I understand the Member's frustration at the situation - all sympathise with that. We are all in remote areas - particularly elderly people, who are left in a very vulnerable position. Against the background of today's debate, that is entirely understandable.
We were all deeply upset about the 1998 situation. Since then NIE has embarked upon an investment campaign. Last year over £80 million was spent on refurbishing 3,500 miles, or approximately 10%, of the electricity network. However, with a rurally-based network there are some difficulties, such as fallen trees. I spoke to the chief executive this morning and, as I understand it, a combination of strong winds and driving wet snow froze on the insulators on the pylons thus turning the insulators into conductors. That resulted in flashovers which caused the fuses to trip out in substations. Many engineers were unable to get to these stations because of the road conditions. When they reached the stations and restored the supply, many of the fuses tripped out again due to the continuing winds and wet snow.
Since 1998, some £10 million was invested in telephone call handling systems and information management technology to improve response times. However, some operatives have been unable to reach the incident centers, which has resulted in longer delays than expected. When this emergency is over, we need to sit down with the company and examine the situation because there is a statutory obligation on the company to ensure effective supplies of electricity, and we need to be satisfied that an appropriate and acceptable response has been made.
Regardless of the criticisms that may be made about the interruption to supply, no criticism is being aimed at the engineers who are driving through the snow and the rain to repair the system. They are operating under great stress, over great distances and, in some cases, in not inconsiderable danger. I am sure that the Member will accept and acknowledge that. We must have a post-mortem on this event, just as we had after 1998. It is fair to say that, just as there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship, there is no such thing as a supply system of electricity in rural areas that does not break down from time to time.