Tuesday 19 December 2006
Private Members’ Business
Private Members’ Business
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Madam Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you make a statement on the security regulations in the House before we rise today? It is a matter that I have raised with you previously. When a similar circumstance arose in the British House of Commons, the Speaker made a full statement on what had happened. This House deserves the same.
Madam Speaker: Thank you, Dr Paisley. I agree with you. If you recall, when the House first sat after the incident, I made a statement giving some idea of what arrangements would be made in the interim. The Assembly Commission has commenced its review of security, two meetings of which I have attended. You and Mr Robinson kindly took time to speak to my officials yesterday, and we take on board all your information and advice.
I assure you that once the review has been completed, as much of it as can be revealed will be made available to the House. My officials have consulted the Westminster review of security, and our review is being conducted along the same lines. You are quite right: on the occasion of which you speak, the Speaker of the House of Commons made a full statement, such as I gave on the Monday after the incident. I will make a further statement. If Members wish to know any more, they should contact my office. I am sure that you agree with me that it would not be proper to reveal full details of the security review in the House. I hope that that is sufficient for now.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: Thank you.
Protection for the Elderly
Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for each of today’s debates. The proposer of each motion will have 15 minutes, and all other Members will have 10 minutes.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls for the appointment of an Interim Commissioner for the Elderly to identify urgently a strategy to assist, protect and develop provision for the elderly in Northern Ireland.
“How blind we are in the midst of so much enlightenment”
was made hundreds of years ago, and it could be made again today. In a time of so-called progress, supposed opportunity, and so much alleged freedom, we are still so blind to the need of those who require so much from us, especially the elderly.
Northern Ireland has an ageing community. How we decide to protect their interests today will determine the shape of our own tomorrows. This is a must-have debate and I am delighted that we are having it today, given the circumstances, especially those pertaining to older people in the community.
Today ought to be declared “Grey Power Day” in Northern Ireland. I hope that the people who have made Northern Ireland what it is today will thank their political representatives because they believe that those representatives care for them.
I notice that an amendment is being moved this morning. Division on the motion is not necessary, and I am concerned about how that division came about. I received an email from Help the Aged. That organisation did not go to other parties in order to get an amendment proposed; other parties contacted Help the Aged about an amendment to the DUP motion. That is unpalatable, because a political squabble is not necessary nor is it in the best interests of the elderly. That email tells its own story.
I say to those groups that might be exploited by a political squabble to look at the no-day-named motions that have been available since the Transitional Assembly started. Only one party has brought forward a motion on the issue; every other party had the chance to do so but did not. That says a lot about who really cares about bringing forward a motion on the issue. Those parties scurrying around looking for an amendment should back the motion.
What we need is not Members squabbling about how the law is implemented; we need the implementation of good law. Whether the law is implemented by a commissioner or by the current ministerial team is irrelevant. We need good laws that are implemented effectively and efficiently. Many of those laws already exist but are not being implemented well.
A joined-up approach across the various Government Departments is needed to address this issue; and that could, and may, lead to the establishment of a commissioner. It could also lead to the effective implementation of existing laws by current and future ministerial teams.
The motion calls for an interim commissioner with a specific time-locked brief to scope and identify a strategy that will assist, protect and develop provisions for the elderly across all Departments. As I have said, that may result in a permanent post or the effective and efficient implementation of the law.
It is logical to have a commissioner, and we should take that step. It is important that society gets real and demonstrates that it really does care about people who are in need. Importantly, it also needs to show that it cares for the elderly, who are the most vulnerable.
Members have a duty to debate this issue effectively and efficiently today. My party and many others have demonstrated considerable commitment to the elderly. Apart from the obvious fact that my party is led by an octogenarian — and that is not a personal comment, Madam Speaker, and I hope you will not rule me out of order. No other party lives up to that standard.
The DUP campaigned for a policy —
Mr Kennedy: Yes, yes.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Mr Kennedy looks older than my party’s leader, by the way.
The DUP campaigned for, and delivered, the provision for free travel, and I was glad that the Northern Ireland Assembly passed that legislation. The DUP also campaigned for, and delivered, through the effective Minister Dodds and Minister Morrow, the warm homes scheme for the elderly.
I am glad to have the opportunity to put some startling facts about the elderly in Northern Ireland on the record. Around 49% of people who are classed as elderly live on an income of less than £10,000 per annum. Fifty-four per cent of households that include people aged 60 or over are in fuel poverty. More than 80,000 elderly people in Northern Ireland live alone. Between 2000 and 2005, more than 2,000 people aged 65 and over died due to winter crisis problems.
Many of the 64% of people aged 65 and above have a long-standing illness and are entitled to claim benefits. However, they do not do so because of ignorance, pride or because they are daunted by the benefits system. In Northern Ireland, 19% of 50-year-olds have mobility problems, which is almost 8% above the national average.
Those statistics reveal that although there is a plethora of Government policies for the elderly, most of them have failed. The Assembly must address that failure. Developing a strategy that urgently addresses the situation and sets in place a defined course of action to ensure the implementation of legislation, and joined-up government for the elderly is one way to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of the goods for the elderly population in Northern Ireland.
When the Assembly was fully operational, it supported winter fuel payments, which started in 2000 under Minister Dodds. One of the greatest indictments of the current Government and their policy is that, despite their pretence to care about the needs of our elderly community, they have not bothered to increase the winter fuel allowance since then. The oil companies have kindly increased the cost of winter fuel each year, and the gas companies have increased the cost of heating.
It is important to get grey power working. That should ensure that pensioner poverty is eradicated sooner rather than later. The Government have a strategy to eradicate pensioner poverty by 2010. The Assembly must help them in doing so and ensure that the Government are held to account.
As an aside to the debate, several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the United States of America on a visitor programme. During that visit, I met several trade union groups. The group that impressed me most was the American Association for Retired People (AARP). It was the most effective pressure group ever, and no politician in America dared to ignore its voice. When the AARP spoke on guns, welfare, or any political issue affecting America, the politician who ignored it did so at his or her peril.
Grey power in Northern Ireland should take a leaf out of the AARP’s book. Politicians who ignore the voices of the elderly in Northern Ireland should do so at their peril. Effective campaigning for the elderly in Northern Ireland must be put in place.
I turn now to issues that have affected our community in recent weeks. Members have been reminded of the horrifying physical attacks that are being carried out on the elderly. Such deplorable attacks must be condemned unequivocally. Today, some Members will pose as defenders of the elderly and, indeed, will pay lip-service to the sentiments that I have expressed. However, as with every other important issue in Northern Ireland today, provision for the elderly comes down to one thing: the delivery of effective policy. We must ensure that we have delivery and not more process.
Members should call a spade a spade and see through a lot of the humbug. I use this platform today to call on those who have refused to support the police and refused to endorse the rule of law and our courts without qualification, to do so. Their failure to do so is not just a failure for everyone else in society; it is a major failure for the elderly people who are suffering because of lawlessness in our society. They should put up or shut up. There is no excuse not to support the effective enforcement of the law and its agencies.
The current spate of attacks on the elderly that has horrified us all has been aided and abetted by a general lawlessness and a lack of leadership from those — especially in Sinn Féin; let us call a spade a spade — who will not support the police. A significant section of the community is encouraged to ignore the rule of law, oppose policing and hate the courts, and we wonder why there are those who feel empowered and free to attack the most vulnerable in our society. The failure to support the rule of law has had hideous consequences for our society. Unfortunately, the people reaping those hideous consequences today are the elderly.
I am throwing down a challenge today. People want to be powerful for the elderly: if they want to support the elderly, they should not pay lip-service or give sentiment. We need support for the rule of law, the police, the courts and this society, so that we can go forward with strength as one. We can and must do that.
There are many public safety campaigns for the elderly that the House should support. The police in my constituency have piloted the ‘Message in a Bottle’ scheme, which provides the elderly with an identifiable message that they can put somewhere safe in their home. If their home is broken into, or if they fall ill, the emergency services are able to get immediate details of their medical needs — if they need tablets or other medication, they are able to get them. It is a very effective policy, and I encourage the police and the Government to roll the campaign out across the Province.
There are neighbourhood watch schemes in many areas; they should be developed and extended across the Province. Police resources should be allocated to allow more officers to serve the community on beat duty and targeted calling with the vulnerable. We need proactive intelligence-driven policing, not reactive guesswork after an elderly person has been attacked. Members have heard today that many problems have been associated with poor detective work and inefficiency; I hope that we can have more efficiency in the future.
The House should unite behind the motion. We need a step-by-step strategic approach, not a knee-jerk approach. We need a real approach to effective delivery of the law to the elderly — that is what they want. In my constituency office, the over-65s tell me that they have problems with their pensions that need sorting out, and the under-60s have problems with benefit care. They want streamlined, effective and efficient delivery of services, and the House should ensure that that is what they get.
Mrs O’Rawe: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “an” and insert
“Independent Commissioner for Older People who would have the necessary powers to effectively promote, safeguard and protect the rights of older people.”
This amendment is intended to strengthen the motion, not to take anything away from it. It has been worded by organisations that represent and work for older people.
By 2020, more than half of the population in Ireland will be over 60, yet, increasingly, older people are marginalised and their contribution is not fully recognised.
Older people are no longer willing to be marginalised or treated as less than equal citizens. They are on the move through organisations such as Help the Aged, Age Concern and Ageing Well, and I take the opportunity, a Cheann Comhairle, to commend those organisations for the work that they do. Campaigns by those organisations and others have taken the issues affecting older people from the periphery to the centre of political debate. They have recognised that the negative attitudes to ageing across the island have prevented the development of the policies and structures needed to address poverty, ill health, isolation and violent attacks.
A Cheann Comhairle, not a day goes by without news of some terrible attack on older people, yet the publication of a safety strategy has been met with more delay, which is totally unacceptable. What we and older people need as a society is a clear plan of action to reduce attacks and tackle offender behaviour, which will ensure that older people are safer and feel safer in their homes.
Earlier in the year, Sinn Féin outlined its agenda for older people when it published our ‘Forget-me-not Charter for Older People’. That recommended a number of actions to ensure that the rights of older people were fully protected; it also recommended a commissioner for older people. Although there is no magic, quick-fix solution to either the cancerous attacks on older people or the wider barriers that older people face, it is clear that we need a proactive and centrally-driven response.
As regards the violence that is directed at older people, we need a joint approach that is grounded in local communities and implemented where it can make a real difference to the lives of older people. Although we need more resources to improve security in the homes of older people and increase their sense of security, such measures will only deal with the symptoms. They are not the cure for the problem of attacks on older people.
A Cheann Comhairle, turning homes into fortresses is not a long-term solution to the problems of isolation, alienation or vulnerability. Resources and actions need to be targeted to support communities in challenging the violence of those who target older people. We need to support older people in realising their vital role in our communities.
Older people have made a lifetime contribution to society through their work, taxes, rates, National Insurance contributions and voluntary work, but the standard of living of many of our older people does not meet their needs or reflect their contributions.
It is an indictment of Government policies that so many older people die each year from cold-related illnesses, and thousands more suffer from the indifference of a cold society. It is vital therefore that mechanisms are developed to properly value, and recognise, the lifelong contribution of older people to society.
Our party believes that we need to support older people in realising their vital roles in their communities. We are the losers without their contribution. That means addressing issues such as low income, access to transport, health, education and housing, and ensuring that the voices of older people are heard. Older people should be consulted on decision-making at all levels of government. A commissioner for older people would provide an important mechanism for challenging and reviewing policy and decision-making, and would give a focused role in decision-making and in articulating the demands and rights of older people.
However, ministerial responsibility that specifically deals with the rights and entitlements of older people, that drives strategy and decision-making, and that can take action across all Departments, must put the rights of older people at the heart of Executive decision-making. It would also create a mechanism for direct democratic accountability. A cross-departmental working group could deal effectively with the many cross-cutting issues that affect older people.
Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) for 2005 estimate that people over 60 make up 19% of our population; that is almost the same as the combined population of the Belfast and Antrim council areas. Many hard-hitting statistics demonstrate the disadvantaged circumstances and vulnerability of older people: 54% of householders in the North aged over 60 are living in fuel poverty; over 80,000 older people live alone; and 2,020 winter deaths occurred among those aged 65 and over between 2000 and 2005.
The aim of a commissioner for older people would be to promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of older people. The commissioner would adopt the principles set out by the United Nations action plan on ageing, which sets challenges for Governments that address issues and opportunities associated with an ageing population.
A commissioner for older people should have powers of enforcement to enable the process of change that is needed to bring older people in from the cold. I ask Members to support the amendment. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Armstrong: Yesterday morning, the Black Santa began the annual sit-out at St Anne’s Cathedral at which he raises funds for needy causes. This year, Rev Houston McKelvey and his team realise the needs of elderly people in society, and they are urging the public to think about that sector in particular as they make their donations this year.
Elderly people are among the most financially and personally vulnerable in society, and it is appropriate that resources be channelled towards making their latter years as comfortable as possible. Over 80,000 older people in Northern Ireland live alone, and 53% of those people say that loneliness is the major problem that they face. It is believed that 5% of older people are at risk of abuse at any time.
Northern Ireland is experiencing a demographic shift. About 16% of the population — over 275,000 people — are of pensionable age, and that is estimated to rise to 24% in 2013. Over 61,000 pensioners — 22·2% — live in poverty, with almost 1,200 suffering cold-related deaths in 2004 and 2005. Those statistics have not recently crept up on us. The Government have been trying to address those facts and figures, but a commissioner for the elderly would enable people to assess the changes that are necessary across the spectrum of legislation and concentrate on the needs of the elderly.
It is essential that Northern Ireland — like its neighbours in Scotland and Wales — appoint a commissioner for older people to promote an awareness and understanding of the rights and interests of older people and to review the current policies, laws and practices relating to that sector of our community. He or she should promote best practice on the part of those who provide services to older people, while also promoting the skills and experiences of older people. A commissioner for the elderly should also be charged with publishing research on matters relating to the rights and interests of older people.
Northern Ireland is primarily a rural region. Our population is scattered, and many people are isolated in rural areas. Isolation causes difficulties for those who are agile, but it greatly affects the lives of the elderly. There are 80,000 people living alone in Northern Ireland. The direct-rule Administration does not take account of Northern Ireland’s rural make-up. The rural towns and villages are lifelines for those living in further isolation. Proposals to close rural hospitals and schools are ridiculous, and the thinking behind such ideas beggars belief. Are the Northern Ireland Ministers proposing to close the countryside and change the way of life in Northern Ireland? A huge number of our ageing population will not accept that, and their voices must be heard.
It is essential that a commissioner for the elderly be appointed urgently in order to ensure that older people are protected and their rights safeguarded. It is natural that we should want that to happen in anticipation of our own old age. However, it is imperative that we consider not only ourselves in old age, but those who are of pension age already, and make the necessary changes. I fully support Help the Aged’s vision of a world where older people are free from disadvantage, poverty, isolation and neglect. We must celebrate the fact that we are living in a society in which people are living longer. We must banish the perception that an increase in the number of older people is a burden on society. The appointment of a commissioner for the elderly will work towards that.
Ms Ritchie: I rise in support of the elderly population. The issue must not become a political football. During the debate, there have been examples of political point-scoring. All elderly people have rights, irrespective of their political or religious differences. The needs of elderly people, rather than parties’ political wants, must be the number-one subject of the debate.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)
With the number of elderly people in the population expected to rise over the next five to 10 years, according to figures from NISRA, it is imperative that a restored Executive and Assembly introduce and refine a range of strategies and policies that place the needs and requirements of older members of the population high up on any agenda. That includes the need to work alongside the law enforcement agencies in order to mitigate the influence and impact of crime, criminality and vandalism on elderly members of the population, and those incidents that prevent them from leaving their homes, making them feel like prisoners in their own surroundings. Anyone who feels like that must be protected and supported.
However, running in parallel with the range of policies and strategies is the need for a wide range of services encompassing statutory residential care, nursing provision and access to community care packages, all of which fall into the ambit of the provision of care and services for the elderly. I want to focus on that point. Help the Aged has undertaken a considerable body of research. It believes that older people have the right to live free from fear and harm. Disadvantaged older people must be freed from poverty, isolation and neglect. I agree with both of those viewpoints.
However, the Department of Health is acting contrary to the needs of older people through the implementation of the reform and modernisation agenda, which will result in the removal of statutory residential beds — one of the elderly population’s primary needs. That is happening as we speak. We have seen the closure of long-established residential care homes and resource centres. This is happening at a time when not an awful lot of money is being invested in home help, community care programmes and occupational therapy services. What will happen to elderly residents in statutory care who do not have any family to care for them? What will happen to those who need constant care and attention and will not be catered for in supported housing, which, as you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, seems to be the favoured option of some of the health trusts?
Current Government policies are Treasury-driven and do not reflect a pragmatic or practical approach to the urgent needs of the elderly, who require constant care and attention and who can take ill at any time without warning.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you and other Members will be aware that in my constituency the Down Lisburn Health and Social Services Trust has been forced, like other trusts in Northern Ireland, to reconfigure its services for the elderly. It has proposed the closure of two statutory residential homes, which will result in the removal of 80 beds. The two homes earmarked for closure are St John’s House in Downpatrick and Seymour House in Dunmurry. People need care and protection from the cradle to the grave, and it is essential that elderly people are given that care and protection, whether in their own homes or in a care environment. It is our duty and responsibility to ensure that not only are champions appointed to make care of the elderly a priority, but that there is a compelling political imperative to make that happen in a restored Assembly and Executive.
Public consultation undertaken earlier this year clearly demonstrated a defined opposition to the closure of both those homes — a total of 6,081 responses were opposed to it. What was the trust made to do? It was forced to give an appraisal of the oldest home, St John’s House, using a scoring mechanism that had low marks for accessibility and functionality. The appraisal gave the impression that the home did not even have a roof, even though it is situated in the centre of Downpatrick, adjacent to the existing hospital.
Undoubtedly, the trust, guided and directed by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, has embarked on a consultation process having already made a decision to close the home, and it has made the scoring fit that premeditated decision. According to the list presented, St John’s House was the oldest home. It is 10 years since it was last allocated expenditure, so one could say that it was perhaps a tidy choice for closure. That decision places at risk its current residents, potential residents and the elderly in the community.
There was no recognition of the glowing terms of reference that St John’s House received, the high quality of care it offered, or of its contented residents, both long term and those for whom it provided daily respite care. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and its custodian, the trust, simply want to implement their predetermined agenda and the reform and modernisation agenda, which is simply about the demolition of elderly care and protection. Do not be fooled by what the Department says. Let us start afresh in the provision of care and protection of the elderly and in the safeguarding and promotion of their rights.
Elderly people must have care options, be that community or residential care. Mr Deputy Speaker, the proposed decision to close residential homes in our area is unacceptable, indefensible and unsatisfactory. Capital funding must be provided to upgrade and replace the home. Statutory residential provision must be made available in our area — that is the view of the local community, and it must be honoured.
We have heard much this morning about the need to protect the elderly in their own homes and the need to provide them with residential care or community care packages. However, we know that the Department has not adequately invested in community care, and those of us who have had direct experience of this issue will know that community care packages are only as good as the people and the trust providing the care. Thus, the elderly are totally reliant on people who already undertake a wide range of jobs in the community. A long-standing commitment to the issue is necessary, and I hope that a restored Assembly and Executive can make such a commitment possible.
We also need a champion — an independent commissioner — to identify the requirements of the elderly, some of which have already been implemented — for example, free travel. I hope that all-Ireland free travel will be introduced in April, which will allow elderly people to travel the length and breadth of this island.
I am concerned about those members of our elderly population who can no longer enjoy the fruits of life and have to be protected in residential care. It is imperative that we ensure that the reform and modernisation initiative of the Department is removed from its strategy and agenda, because it does not serve the elderly well. Each one of us here must act as champions of the elderly. The reform and modernisation agenda must relinquish all thoughts of closing statutory residential provision or any form of residential provision. The Programme for Government Committee and the incoming Executive and Assembly must give priority to policies that reflect the needs and requirements of the elderly.
Mr McCarthy: I support the motion.
If this Assembly is to be of any use to the people of Northern Ireland, it must provide a fair deal to our senior citizens. Our senior citizens are a proud and independent people. They have served this country well and must be protected as they retire and hang up their working tools, at whatever age.
I had the pleasure, during the Northern Ireland Assembly, of chairing a cross-party group working on senior citizens’ concerns and their problems. It was called the Age Sector Reference Group. That group regularly brought senior citizens from all corners of Northern Ireland to Parliament Buildings to discuss their needs and ways of overcoming their problems. I take this opportunity to thank those dedicated people. They are still campaigning, and it is obvious they have not solved all their problems. I hope that, when a new Assembly is fully working and operational, a similar group of people will carry on where they left off.
It annoys me enormously when I hear of senior citizens being denied millions of pounds in benefits, to which they are entitled, through no fault of their own. They go without just because the system is cumbersome, and the form-filling just puts people off. We must devise a method, through social security, where every senior citizen is made aware of his or her entitlements and, if necessary, given help to receive all that is due.
I wish to pay tribute to Age Concern, Help the Aged, Advice Northern Ireland and other groups for their assistance at this level. We, as a society, must never accept that an elderly person has to choose between eating and heating.
I am delighted that this motion has reached the Floor of the Assembly. It gives us all an opportunity to make plans to be carried out when we have the power through a devolved Assembly. In fact, I would support not only an interim commissioner but a full-time officer as well to deal solely with the issues that affect our elderly folk.
During the life of the Northern Ireland Assembly we introduced free travel for our over 65’s. Ian Paisley takes credit for free travel, but we all played our part in that. I would like to take some credit for free travel on the Strangford ferry. After free travel was introduced on our roads I made enquiries of the Department about the ferry crossing. No one knew if we were going to get it free or not. After we had finished with the Department, we got it free. Every little helps.
We must now champion those female senior citizens who have reached the age of 60. As Margaret Ritchie has said, it is to be hoped that in April 2007 free public transport across the whole island will be in the pensioners’ sights. However, it is not much fun for a 65-year old pensioner to go on a free jaunt when his wife, who has not reached the age of 65, has to sit at home. [Laughter.]
As usual, the principles of equality tell us that that is wrong. It is unfair and must be rectified.
We fought age discrimination and won. Our slogan — “never on the scrap heap” at 60 for women and 65 for men — is now history, I am glad to say. People now have a choice and can work for as long as they see fit. I applaud the Ulster Unionist Party’s health spokesman, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, who is planning to continue his work in the next Assembly in March — and why not? If Robert, or anyone else, has the health and the desire to continue helping people, I say well done and keep going — even if the pressure not to do so is coming from within his own party. A proven record is preferable to an unknown quantity.
Senior citizens have been the target of robbers, muggers and gangsters. Everyone has a duty to support the police in catching these morons, who ought to be dealt with severely. A good stiff deterrent might give them reason to stop their activities. In a small, sheltered housing development in Ballywalter in my constituency, a co-ordinator was employed for more than 20 years to keep an eye on the 20 residents of that development and did an excellent job. That person has now decided to retire but will not be replaced. This has created fear and apprehension among the senior citizens living in that development. A new alarm system is being put in place, but it is not the same as having a person on the premises.
There are many ways to help our senior citizens. If we are to have a commissioner solely responsible for their welfare, this country can say that it looks after all its senior citizens well. There are many issues that affect our elderly population that would justify the appointment of a full-time commissioner. I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak is Mrs Norah Beare. This the first occasion on which Mrs Beare will speak in the Assembly. She will be making her maiden speech. Members will be aware that it is convention that during such a speech there are no interruptions.
Mrs Beare: It is a great privilege for me to address the House today. I congratulate my colleagues on tabling this timely motion. As others have done, I should declare an interest, in that I reached pensionable age not long ago. We are living in an age in which there has been a decline in traditional values in sections of our society, particularly the value of respect for one’s elders.
I know that we should not be alarmist. The PSNI will tell us that there has been no marked increase in the number of attacks on the elderly. However, the majority of people cannot comprehend the mindset that would lead someone to attack a pensioner. Therefore every incident that has made the headlines over the past few years is deeply shocking. We have to send out the message that such behaviour is unacceptable and that our elderly are valued. We can effectively demonstrate that value in the way we treat pensioners across the entire spectrum of public policy. Only by the appointment of a dedicated commissioner can all those strands and competing interests be pulled together.
I shall take this opportunity to mention some of the priorities that a commissioner could include in a comprehensive strategy. After a lifetime, a decent standard of living is not too much to expect. Frankly, we do not prove that we value our older population when so many pensioners are living in poverty and struggling to meet the basic costs of living. Government’s responsibility is not only to ensure decent incomes, but to minimise those costs. Making provision for the elderly in the new rating system should have been one of the first priorities of the policy process, rather than a point on which Government had to be pressed.
I am mindful of the difficulties that many pensioners face when battling winter colds with severely restricted budgets. I welcome the increases in the winter fuel allowance. However, the implementation of increases designed to keep pace with the rising cost of most home fuels has been delayed too long.
Our focus should not simply be on pensions, healthcare or any of the issues that are obviously linked to elderly people, important as those matters are. As members of the community, the majority of everyday issues affect older people, and the impact of every public policy on them should be considered.
Older members of society have a greater reliance on local services. For example, the changes and closures in the Post Office network have had a disproportionate impact on pensioners. Accessibility is a key consideration, and, consequently, pensioners depend significantly on public transport. The introduction, by the DUP, of free transport was a tremendous development, but the Assembly must ensure that the services are there to be used. In many cases, elderly people have been disproportionately affected when certain services have been discontinued. When these decisions are taken, there must be more evidence that elderly people have been considered and that alternative arrangements have been examined.
A commissioner for elderly people will have the resources and impetus to give a concentrated view on policies that have the potential to affect the older population. It has been demonstrated that improvements can be made to the quality of life experienced by pensioners through policy changes — I have already mentioned free transport.
The recent introduction of age discrimination legislation is another positive move. For some time, firms such as B&Q and Sainsbury’s have welcomed applicants from the older age group in recognition of the value that their experience can bring. I hope that one consequence of the new legislation will be that every firm will accept the fact that people are not ready for the scrap heap when they hit 50 years of age — or, in my case, 60 years of age — and that companies actively pursue the qualities that older employees can offer. In the same way that the energy and fresh perspective of a young person can offer specific benefits to a firm, so too can the more considered and experienced approach that is offered by an older person. A diverse mix of ages and qualities will make a difference to the standards and services of any firm, and such recruitment practices should be embraced.
A commissioner for older people should have a specific remit to cut through bureaucracy, not add to it. The position of the Commissioner for Children and Young People demonstrates the difference that an independent champion can make by evaluating the competing interests of Departments and agencies to formulate a cohesive and co-ordinated strategy. At a time when there is an ageing population, Members should send out a strong signal that they will be proactive when looking after the interests of people, regardless of their stage of life.
Mr Deputy Speaker: There will be several maiden speeches this morning, and Mr Fra McCann’s speech is in that category. I remind Members that there should be no interruptions.
Mr McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
As other Members have indicated, it would have been preferable if cross-party agreement on the amendment had been reached. That would have sent out a strong and positive message that we can put traditional political animosities to one side and find common ground in agreeing a mechanism that prioritises the needs of older people in society and protects and champions their rights. A political squabble is not in the best interests of older people; agreement would move us forward.
Regardless of political opinion or background, Members can agree that older people are being sold short. Their lives are made harder by the barriers that they face — economic barriers, housing problems and difficulties in accessing the services that they require. Those problems and difficulties are numerous, and the solutions are long in coming.
I confess that I have not always been as up to date on these issues as I should have been, and it is only through the lobbying of many of the organisations that deal with the rights of elderly people that I am now more aware of the serious deficiencies in the way that elderly people are viewed.
Discrimination against older people in our society is to be deplored. If the Assembly were live, and if the institutions were working fully, we could — and would — find the political will to make the necessary legislative changes that would make all the difference to the lives of thousands of people.
I hope that, before long, we will be working with a commissioner and that we will be sitting in a working Assembly pushing through legislation that will make those all-important changes and working to ensure that such a commissioner will have the powers to promote, safeguard and protect the rights of older people.
Several years ago, I was shocked when someone from Help the Aged told me that, at the age of 50, I should class myself as elderly. It is a bigger shock to delve into the many pieces of literature available on the rights of elderly people. It is then that the extent of the problem, and how it has been ignored, can be understood.
As politicians, we have a duty to put right all practices that discriminate against any section of our community. It is our obligation to rectify those many wrongs. Had we been able to obtain unity today, we would have sent the all-important message that we will be the bringers of change when we have the opportunity to do so.
I work on behalf of many elderly people in my constituency, making representations to many statutory and non-statutory bodies on constituency issues. The same problems are echoed in many areas across the North. I understand the fear that elderly people feel when they receive a form from a Government agency and have no one to complete it for them. I understand the annoyance of a phone call or a visit from people with the label of authority, who have been abrupt, and who have left without fully explaining why they called in the first place.
Those are but two of the many issues that impact on the daily lives of elderly people. If some research were carried out, or if time were spent reassuring people that help is available, things could be different. People could retain their dignity and not feel that they are a problem.
I am sure that many Members have received briefing material from Help the Aged and Age Concern; such material contains stark facts and figures. We hear about the need for lifelong learning, and the changes required to make that a reality; the need to extend free transport throughout the island of Ireland; the need for easier access to the Government-subsidised rural transport initiative; the right to a decent standard of living; an end to discrimination in healthcare; and many other issues faced by the elderly.
The issue that is currently to the fore is community safety; how we can make life safer for elderly people and how we can work together to tackle the blight of the growing number of attacks on older people over the past several years.
Housing for the elderly is also an issue. Sinn Féin believes that housing is a fundamental right. Elderly people are often isolated in areas where accommodation for the elderly is sited. Sinn Féin believes that the discriminatory practice of refusing to sell bungalows or apartment accommodation to the over-60s should cease.
The Housing Executive should extend the system of community wardens to all communities to help to deal with the problems faced by all people, but especially the elderly. Fully resourced residents associations would also encourage the representation of elderly people on committees, help to break down barriers and feelings of isolation, and ensure that the needs of older people in our communities are properly addressed.
A security review of all residential premises housing elderly people should be carried out. All new social housing should be designed to meet the needs of the ageing person. There should be recognition for elderly people in the housing selection scheme through the allocation of additional points — the scheme currently hampers the possibility of older people being housed in areas of high demand. More resources should be introduced to end the unnecessary delays in occupational therapist visits and completion of works. There should be a better mix in new housing develop-ments and investment in sustainable communities.
There are many more issues in relation to housing and many other areas of life that make elderly people feel like second-class citizens. We are the people who can play a major role in making the type of changes required to make a difference. I support the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak is Mr Copeland. He, too, will be making his maiden speech, and I ask that Members listen to his speech without interruption.
Mr Copeland: I stand in the corner of the Chamber, where I have sat for many weeks. Mr Deputy Speaker, you used the word “maiden” to describe what I am about to say. That is a term that implies virtue and innocence — commodities that are rare enough outside the Chamber, rarer inside it and rarer still in a middle-aged former soldier.
Anyone who has ever spoken to me would be quick to admit that I have never been noted as being short of something to say, and that has occasioned some comment as to why I have sat in silence in the corner of the Chamber for so many weeks. The truth is that this is not the body to which I sought election — it is a follow-on, a territorial army — the TA — the Transitional Assembly. Before that, we had the Hain Assembly, and I have sat, watched and listened. I am painfully aware that the settled will of all 108 Members in the Chamber, were they all here, could not currently occasion the changing of a light bulb in a chandelier in the Great Hall.
This debate is interesting — some of it is eloquent, some of it is intelligent and some of it is well thought out, but all of it amounts to nothing other than hot air because this Assembly has reposed in it no ability to introduce, change or pass any piece of legislation that would be to the benefit of the people who sent us here.
I turn to the matter of elderly people. My grandmother was born on the last day of 1898. On the last day of this year, she will celebrate her one hundred and eighth birthday. She was 30 years of age before she was afforded a vote — 30 years of age. She went to school until she was 11 years of age but benefited from an education system that taught her to read, write and count properly — abilities that seem to evade pupils in today’s schools at the age of 15 or 16. She moved to her current house in 1921 and has stayed there ever since, raising seven children. She is as mentally active as most people I know but she does suffer from the passage of time. She is lucky in that she has maintained her dignity to a greater degree than many of the elderly people who come to my constituency office six days and four nights a week.
My father is in his mid-80s. He was born not quite in the shadow of the gantries but in Coburg Street, off the Ravenhill Road, in a two-up-two-down house that he shared with his parents, brother and two sisters. He was born at a time when children were not condemned by a postcode at the date and time of their birth to poor education and poor employment prospects. He found and secured employment as an apprentice at Harland and Wolff shipbuilders. As a young man, my father looked up at the Castlereagh Hills and decided that he wanted to live there. Through work, advancement and graft, he built his own home 55 years ago, where he has stayed ever since.
All the issues that we debate in this place can affect the people who sent us here. However, the truth is that, so far, everything that we have said, discussed, hypothesised about and put forth theories on is not worth the paper that it is written on unless the House has the ability to introduce relevant legislation for the benefit of the people who sent us here.
There are difficulties, and I appreciate them. Some Members to my left have difficulties with some Members to my right, who are deemed not fit for power. “Power” is a word that, in politics, terrifies me, because power cannot be divided; responsibility can be divided but power cannot.
I understand the difficulties. Members on the opposite Benches know about my background; I have spoken to them about it. I am a unionist, a Protestant and an orangeman. I am a former commissioned officer in the Ulster Defence Regiment. My wife is a unionist, a Protestant and an orangewoman. She is a former constable in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who was shot once and blown up three times before she was 19 years of age. That is the reality of what is in our past and what is in our future.
I know where this place is going and so does everyone else, including the people outside the Chamber. This is a process and a journey. It is a railway journey in the fog; we cannot see where we are going, but everyone knows where we are going. The sooner we get there and own up to the responsibilities that we have to the people, the happier the people of Northern Ireland and I will be. We have a population of 1·7 million people, and we suffer the vagaries of life in this place in equal measure.
Do I support the motion? Yes, of course I do. Who would not? If I go through the Lobby or raise my hand or say “Aye”, will that bring the actions called for in the motion closer to becoming a reality? Of course it will not, until we acknowledge and accept the responsibilities given to us by the people.
The aged are the people who gave us the chance to be what we are. It is incumbent on us to act not just for them, but for all sections of society, and not to go through a piece of theatre in this Chamber that does not change anything. As I said, the settled will of all of us could not change a light bulb.
Mr Dallat: It is very difficult to follow that.
This matter is, of course, worthy of debate. It presents an opportunity to discuss the very real issues that the elderly face across the spectrum. From the outset, the SDLP has favoured the appointment of a commissioner for older people. If anything, the justification has become more obvious as older people face new forms of poverty, discrimination, intimidation and other types of physical and mental abuse. Any society that does not appreciate its elderly or work positively to enrich their lives is sadly lacking in its responsibilities and, therefore, the poorer for it. For that reason, I support strongly the sentiments expressed by Mr Copeland, although he comes from a quite different background.
The breakdown in family structures and cohesion has resulted in a serious weakening of close family ties, particularly between the first and third generations. That is unfortunate for many reasons, not least because the older generation — the grannies and grandads — are one of the most valuable learning resources for younger people. The appointment of an independent commissioner would provide an early opportunity to begin rebuilding the bond between younger and older people. It would permit the introduction of new and innovative schemes delivered through schools, clubs and societies and help to build the kind of relationship that has been eroded over the years because of our changing lifestyles.
Some time ago I had the privilege of welcoming to this House a group of students from St Paul’s College, Kilrea. They were accompanied by grannies and grandads — not their own but adopted ones. That project was encouraged at the time by the Government and it was worthy of being rolled out across the region. The appointment of a commissioner would mean a new pair of hands to promote schemes such as that so that new and sustainable friendships are built for the mutual benefit of all generations. Protection for the elderly comes in many forms and cannot possibly be delivered in its entirety without a strategy and without a commissioner dedicated and committed to championing the rights of those so badly neglected. Indeed, if it were not for the sterling work of the voluntary organisations such as Help the Aged, the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army, the situation would be much worse.
Members will be aware of the outrageous attacks on older people, usually for money but sadly often for nothing more than to persecute older people through intimidation, vandalism and damage to property. A commissioner for older people would be expected, in my opinion, to recommend new legislation to this House to ensure that the courts send out a clear message that older people are a protected group of citizens who will be ring-fenced against unequal treatment in any form and by anyone.
Older people in nursing homes can have the best of times, but they can also have the worst of times, depending on the location. Their rights as citizens should not cease when they go into nursing care, but all too often that is what happens. That is a major issue for an independent commissioner on which to concentrate his or her mind. There are of course many other issues affecting older people whereon the Government have failed miserably to bring forward the legislation necessary to protect their rights or have ignored serious issues that have emerged over time.
Although I accept that the Assembly has no power, we should hope that by the end of this debate we have done more than produce a party-political broadcast, given that some of those who thumped their chests in the Chamber today were far away when the elderly marched in Belfast to get a modest increase in their pensions. Come election time, the names of some of those elderly people will be on the list for a postal vote, sometimes without their approval.
Let us end the debate on a positive note. The image of the Assembly is, to use a common phrase, at rock bottom. A burst of sincerity and a commitment to put people before party, especially when those people are the most vulnerable, would be infinitely useful. Let us cut out the crap and get on with what we are paid to do. That is the real test, and some of the guff that Mr Paisley Jnr spoke earlier cuts no ice: it is as functional as an ashtray on his much-talked-about motorbike.
Mr Berry: As the youngest Member of this Assembly, I support the motion that stands in the names of Lord Morrow and Mr Paisley Jnr. I support the call to protect, assist and develop provisions for the elderly in Northern Ireland. I also support the motion’s call to appoint an interim commissioner for the elderly. It is important that such a commissioner works closely with the two main advocates for the elderly, Help the Aged and Age Concern. Indeed, I want to put on record the tremendous work that those two groups carry out for elderly people: they are strong and effective voices for them.
How can the elderly be assisted? Although many issues have been raised already in the Chamber this morning, problems remain to be solved, such as ensuring that elderly people have easier access to necessary benefits. We must ensure that they claim the appropriate benefits. Last year, older people left over £4 million-worth of benefits unclaimed in the United Kingdom.
There must be greater awareness of the entitlements that are available under the warm homes scheme, which has already been mentioned. That was a very welcome scheme that the then Minister, Nigel Dodds MP, introduced. That strategy is still meeting the tremendous need that exists in the community, but it needs further promotion, given that 25,000 people aged over 65 died last year as a result of cold-related illnesses.
We also need to ensure that all the appropriate agencies, particularly the PSNI, work closely with local elderly residents to ensure that they receive the free measures that are available to help them secure their homes.
Transport services in Northern Ireland are very poor, and they need to be more accessible to, and reliable for, the elderly. We can also consider developing for the elderly other provisions that are poorly served across the United Kingdom. We need to ensure that those provisions are strengthened, not removed or reduced.
An interim commissioner could examine the differences in health provision across the new boards and trusts. We must ensure that personal social services and mental health services for the elderly are improved and protected.
Lord Morrow will be aware that the Armagh and Dungannon Health and Social Services Trust introduced this month a new meals-on-wheels service for elderly residents in Dungannon. That service is soon to be expanded to Armagh. Were elderly people consulted about that new service? What impact could it have on home-help services, given that hours could be reduced? Many elderly people are thankful for the home-help workers who come into their homes each day. Sometimes they are the only people whom those elderly people see. Health and social services trusts and boards must be monitored, and the voices of the elderly must be heard to ensure that they get the proper services.
Elderly people need someone to protect provision for them, and help to enhance sevices.
Much has been said about the need for our elderly to be protected. All too often, we learn of cowardly and disgusting attacks on our elderly population across the country. Our stomachs churn when we see on the news, or read about, pensioners describing the dreadful ordeal that they have faced at the hands of thugs who have entered their homes. We hear reports of elderly people being tied to chairs as their homes have been ransacked, and reports of their being thrown to the ground, having hammers pushed into their faces and being told to shut up or else they will be killed. It is disgusting and frightening to think about.
Far too often, we witness pensioners in tears on television gripping hankies as a result of the previous night’s attack. We look at bruised bodies and faces and at bloodshot eyes — all because our elderly people need further protection.
That shameful trend must stop, and the Government must implement the long-promised community safety strategy for older people. Both Help the Aged and Age Concern in Northern Ireland have worked tirelessly to impress on the Government the need to revive that long-awaited strategy. David Hanson MP must take urgent action to work in partnership and deliver for the elderly people as he has promised.
Implementation of a strategy or the appointment of an interim commissioner certainly would not represent the waving of a magic wand. Strategies or commissioners will not solve all the problems on their own. However, it would represent a positive start if action were taken and resources provided to tackle those shameful attacks and trends.
The best scheme to help reduce and prevent crime would involve the Government, the PSNI, the wider community and — most importantly — the elderly people who are suffering. We were informed on 30 November 2006 that Age Concern, Help the Aged and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) had written to the NIO’s community safety unit to request an update on the progress of the community safety strategy for older people. The question posed was: “What is happening with it and when?”
The community safety unit’s response must be a positive one. I call on Minister Hanson to step up to the mark and deliver on the strategy. This Assembly must assist the voluntary bodies — namely, Age Concern and Help the Aged — with their demands on behalf of our elderly community.
If appointed, an interim commissioner for the elderly must work in partnership with the Government, the voluntary bodies, the PSNI and all other relevant agencies to deal with the issues facing our society. An interim commissioner would provide a welcome voice for all the elderly people who seek protection; would support delivery of local services; would assist the agencies to make a positive difference; and would be an effective link to the new patient and client council that is being set up under the review of public administration (RPA). We must work in partnership to help the elderly population feel safe again.
This Assembly must send out a clear and united message to all the relevant Ministers that an interim commissioner must be appointed to champion the needs of our elderly. The elderly need our support and that of the Government. They need access and choice, but, most of all, they need their dignity restored and protected.
Mr N Dodds: It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. I am delighted to follow the hon Member for Newry and Armagh, who raised important points about the community safety strategy. Members on all sides have made important points about the need to appoint a commissioner for older people.
This is an important debate. Older people, and those who work with older people, recognise that, under the previous devolved arrangements, the Northern Ireland Assembly did important work to advance the interests and causes of our senior citizens. It is right and proper that the Transitional Assembly should focus its attention on our older people’s needs through this debate on the appointment of an older persons’ commissioner.
While we can discuss whether a commissioner should be an interim appointment or have an independent role, we must concentrate on the need to reach agreement on all sides that such a post should be created. At the outset, it is important to agree that an office should be set up to focus on the rights, concerns and interests of elderly people, and to advance their interests across all aspects of government and the wider community.
That is not a new demand; it has been around for some time. Northern Ireland has made considerable advances by appointing commissioners for children and victims, and creating other important independent roles to monitor, supervise and advance the interests of a whole range of sectors. It is essential that such a large, diverse and important sector of our community, which has contributed so much to society and that continues to do so, should have a champion to speak on its behalf.
Of course, many older people are well able to speak for themselves. In our constituencies, we have all met senior citizens who are extremely vociferous, energetic and active in representing a range of issues and interests in the community. Many older people simply want the right, and the resources, to enable them to live independent lives, free from worries about poverty and social exclusion. To achieve that, the Government must ensure that they deliver, across a range of policies, the means by which older people can, if they are able and if they wish, live independent lives.
However, many people in society, particularly senior citizens, are unable to live the independent lives to which we all aspire and many need a great deal of assistance along the way. It is when we, as public representatives, interact with the elderly and the agencies dedicated to helping them that we see the needs of the elderly at first hand and realise in how many areas of public and social policy more could, and should, be done to assist senior citizens. We need to take that very seriously. Many Members across all parties already do so, and the debate illustrates that.
Mr McCann: Will the Member give way?
Mr N Dodds: I will not, as my time is limited, and I wish to pursue a number of points. However, I am sure that the hon Member will catch the eye of the Deputy Speaker in due course.
It is essential that a commissioner be appointed as soon as possible by any Government, whether devolved or direct rule. Such an appointment should not await a devolution settlement but should proceed as quickly as possible. We must act in defence of older people; they need a champion across a range of issues.
Many Members have highlighted the issues of pension provision, benefits and fuel poverty. The concerns that older people raise with us, as constituency representatives, are access to the Health Service, hospital waiting lists and decent and suitable housing. Many elderly people benefit from the assistance of carers or, indeed, are carers themselves. Fuel poverty, crime, employment and transport also affect older folk, yet those are areas in which Government policy and delivery is often deficient. It is essential that those policy areas be tackled.
What could a commissioner actually do? In Wales, a commissioner for older people will be appointed next year, and it will be interesting to compare some of the work that is planned for the commissioner in that jurisdiction with what a Northern Ireland commissioner might do.
One of the main tasks for a commissioner for older people would be to influence policy and the legal regime that governs and affects older people. Such a commissioner would inform and support older people, be an advocate for their causes, safeguard their rights, be a point of contact in the investigation of complaints, promote awareness of their interests at Government level and encourage good practice. A commissioner’s office could conduct research and develop policies for older people, ensuring that Northern Ireland complied with best practice. Northern Ireland should be at the cutting edge, not only in the United Kingdom but in Europe, in delivering services to older people.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
Many issues must be examined. We need a commissioner who can be a strong voice for senior citizens, and who can highlight and tackle issues such as age discrimination. Older people will be the first to say that they do not want an image being sent out of their being vulnerable, weak and unable to do things for themselves. We need a commissioner who will promote, encourage, support and facilitate a positive image of ageing and of older people. We are all getting older and, God willing, will be in the older people sector eventually. We must ensure that, as society gets older, all citizens, including young people, are given a positive image of older people. A commissioner for older people could help in that regard.
It is a difficult task. The appointment of a commissioner will not be a panacea for all problems for older folk. Policies will still need to be developed, and Government will still have to contend with competing departmental priorities and financial restrictions. As elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, we are sending out a positive message from the Assembly that, both now and in the future, the concept of a commissioner for older people is important. We are reiterating our support for senior citizens in a wide array of areas and saying that the appointment of a commissioner for older people should be a priority for a devolved, or direct-rule, Government. The House will wish to be united on that issue.
I am sure that the entire House will join the Members who have already spoken about Age Concern and Help the Aged in congratulating those organisations for the work that they have done to promote the interests of older people in Northern Ireland. I wish them well in their continuing work.
Mr Hillis: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the motion. It is encouraging that, before today’s debate, the idea of, or aspiration for, a commissioner for older people received enthusiastic cross-party support. It is academic whether the commissioner is an interim or permanent position. It could be argued that we either have a commissioner or we do not have a commissioner. Do we really want a halfway house? We could send out a far better message if we were to unite on the motion rather than be divided on such a vital issue.
Traditionally, many other countries and cultures have had an entirely different outlook towards elderly people than we do. In China, for instance, elderly people are revered as repositories of wisdom.
Many African nations have the same commendable philosophy. It would therefore be fitting for this Assembly to place on record the support of all political parties for the appointment of a commissioner for the elderly, whether interim or permanent. That would be an important first step in acknowledging the need to promote awareness and understanding of the rights and interests of older people.
As other Members have highlighted, we lag behind our colleagues in Wales and Scotland. The National Assembly for Wales is to be particularly commended, as it intends to appoint an independent commissioner for older people next year. An Independent Com-munications and Management (ICM) poll in Wales showed that nine out of 10 people support a strong, independent commissioner for older people. The Scottish Parliament is actively debating the creation of a similar post.
Older people in Northern Ireland must be watching those developments with much frustration, as the devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales are busy instigating policies that our older people equally deserve. It is to be hoped that, with the imminent return of a devolved Assembly, we can turn this aspirational motion into reality. We are all too well aware that, while Members can make all the speeches that they want and posture as much as they like, until the Transitional Assembly becomes a real Assembly we are wasting our time.
The motion is vital to a large section of our community. Statistics on the number of older people in Northern Ireland vary greatly, but the figure is at least 200,000. That is set to rise to 24% of the population by 2013. Older people bring considerable assets to our country. They each bring a lifetime’s experience, and they are hard-working when given the chance to show their talents and skills.
It is particularly sad that older people are frequently discriminated against during all stages of the employment process, from recruitment and training through to redundancy and retirement. I am especially pleased that the law is changing in Northern Ireland so that older members of the workforce who wish to continue in their jobs cannot be forced out simply because they have reached a certain birthday. Many older workers have much to offer, and many employers have told me how valuable their more senior employees are to their businesses.
Regrettably, many senior citizens do not enjoy good health. I am shocked that, according to overall UK figures, 25,000 people over the age of 65 died from preventable, cold-related illnesses last winter. In many cases, those deaths were a result of poverty and poor housing. Statistics show that, at any one time, 500,000 older people are believed to be abused in the United Kingdom. Shockingly, 46% of abuse directed towards elderly people is committed by family members — shame on them.
We are also told that one million elderly people will be spending this Christmas alone — nobody calling to say hello, just sitting by themselves over Christmas. This society should be ashamed of itself.
It seems that every news bulletin contains a report about the latest attack on an elderly person in their home. Older people are often seen as easy targets for burglars and muggers. Police statistics published recently by the BBC showed that there were 140 attacks on the over-50s in the four months up to last September. For the same period of this year, there were 204 attacks — a whopping 45% increase.
In reality, older people are less likely to be the victims of violent crime, but their fear is very real. This should be a priority issue for the police and for policy-makers.
Older people are to be ignored at our peril. They have major economic clout. Statistics show that older consumers — people aged over 50 — spend more than £170 billion each year. That is a lot of cash in anyone’s language. Also, we are all aware that older voters are much more likely to exercise their franchise than the more junior members of the community. That is something always to be remembered, especially in the run-up to March 2007.
Madam Speaker: I apologise for calling Mr O’Dowd out of turn.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
I support the amendment. However, I also congratulate Ian Paisley Jnr and Mr Morrow for proposing the motion. The amendment is not about usurping the DUP’s motion. When the other parties contacted the lobby groups for older people, it was not in conspiracy against the DUP. It is common practice for political parties to speak to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, etc, when matters come before the House for debate. We want to ensure that the motions that we pass are as representative of the needs of the people as possible.
As Mr Hillis said, it is unfortunate that this is only a motion and will not become legislation. We need to get to the point where we are able to introduce legislation before the House, rather than motions.
The amendment would strengthen the motion. It would not dilute it or take away from it; it would strengthen it, and that is why my party supports the amendment, which was drafted after discussions with older people’s groups.
The amendment calls for an independent com-missioner. It is in that independence that power and strength will lie for anyone who is placed in this post. We must ensure that he or she is not under the governance either of direct-rule Ministers or of the next Executive. We have to ensure that the commissioner is prepared to stand up to politicians and NGOs alike — to all sectors of administration — to ensure that the needs of the people who he or she is appointed to represent are indeed represented. That is paramount. That is where the power of any commissioner will lie.
It was said earlier that the British Government want to eradicate poverty among older people by 2010. We are two weeks away from 2007, and many older people are living in poverty as we speak. My constituency of Upper Bann includes the Craigavon council area, which has one of the highest cold-related death rates in the winter months of any region in the North. When I saw the figures, I could not believe that so many people were dying from the cold in our society. The role of an independent commissioner — and of an incoming Executive — would be to ensure that we eradicate such things.
We know what is needed. There is no need for an interim commissioner to reinvestigate the needs of older people. The lobby groups, the NGOs and the older people themselves know. They are in and out of all of our constituency offices every day. We know the needs of older people. It is time for an independent commissioner to be appointed to ensure that those needs are met.
In relation to crimes against the elderly, it is unfortunate that politics has been brought into the debate and that Ian Paisley Jnr has used this debate to lambaste my party over policing. He used our serious concerns about the accountability measures in policing to suggest that somehow Sinn Féin’s view on policing allows attacks on older people to take place.
Following the logic of that argument, there should be no attacks against the elderly in North Antrim, North Belfast or Upper Bann — but there are. Therefore, that is not a logical argument. Jail is the only place for people who attack and intimidate the elderly, and there is no hiding place for them in the nationalist and republican community. It is unfortunate that the Member chose to insult that community by saying that those hiding places exist: they do not.
It is important that we use today’s debate to go forward with a united voice. Perhaps the amendment will not be made, but if we politicians, who are much-maligned in this part of the world, can send a message to direct-rule Ministers — and, indeed, to any incoming Executive — that it is time to make appointments and to publish and implement a safety strategy for elderly people, we will have done a good day’s work
Mrs M Bradley: Recent media and public attention has focused on sudden outbursts of attacks on the elderly, such as the rampage in south Antrim last week. However, the sad and disgraceful fact is that elderly people are robbed every day in Northern Ireland. Recent statistics tell us that there have been more than 560 such attacks since the beginning of the year — nearly two attacks each day. I am sure that many other attacks do not get reported and, therefore, are not counted in current statistics. If those crimes are to be stopped, we need to understand them better. More research is necessary. A targeted system of prevention to deter offenders is also necessary, and it must be supported by community action.
The full impact of those crimes can be understood only in the context of the isolation that many elderly people feel already. Not only are they being attacked physically and robbed of their possessions, they are often alone and helpless in dealing with the aftermath. My immediate fear is that those attacks will isolate elderly people further, compounding their fear and making it difficult for them to leave their homes, while making them more fearful of staying in their homes.
That is why we require a commissioner for the elderly who is charged with empowering them in all aspects of their lives, not least in helping them to prevent and cope with any crimes that may be committed against them. However, I feel strongly that, as a matter of urgency, a task force should be created that incorporates the manpower of all the statutory bodies that have that responsibility to all generations, particularly the elderly. As recent attacks illustrate, elderly people are being preyed on by mindless thugs and individuals who see them as easy targets. Any proposed task force should be able to research and develop strategies to prevent such crimes and to provide assistance and resources to protect the older members of our communities.
Too many elderly people lead miserable and sad existences. Many live in one room of their homes, such are their fears of incurring huge electricity bills and using too much oil. Their meagre state pensions and miserly winter fuel allowances simply do not equate with the rising costs of maintaining a warm home.
Fuel poverty is an all-too-common plague in our society, and elderly people are one of the most vulnerable groups who suffer as a result of that. Fifty-four per cent of householders aged 60 and over currently live with the misery of fuel poverty. The all-too-common utility-bill hikes, combined with a non-index-linked pension, are enough to make elderly people worry about the cost of living without having the additional anxieties of feeling under threat within their own four walls.
I am sure that we all have older family members whom we are keen to protect. However, more than 80,000 older people live alone in Northern Ireland, and a substantial number of those are literally alone in their communities because they have no families at all. I urge society to stand up and be counted and to help identify and assist such people, who are perhaps afraid to ask for help, or, more likely, are afraid to leave their homes because they do not know whom they can trust.
In recent years, horrific injustices have been inflicted upon the elderly. Women in their late 80s have not only had their houses burgled, they have been subjected to the humiliation of rape. Elderly men have been beaten almost to death for a few pounds. How long can we allow that to go on? It is not only a disgrace on those who carry out such attacks; it is a terrifying indication of where our society is heading.
As politicians, we have a responsibility to lead on the issue. We must not wait for the problem to get worse before taking practical and radical steps to secure the immediate prevention of crime against the elderly, proper means of support for them and the provision of the research and resources needed to make the lives of the elderly easier and safer. That is a necessity, not a luxury; indeed, feeling safe in one’s home is a basic human right.
Such attacks occur not only in Antrim but throughout Northern Ireland. In my constituency of Foyle, there has been occasion to condemn attacks on those who care for the elderly as well as elderly people themselves. That is totally unacceptable in any society.
Older people want nothing more than to live in peace with dignity — they certainly deserve to. I ask the House to unite in support of the amendment, which was requested by Help the Aged, who represent the interests of the elderly. Members are all big enough, old enough and brave enough to stand together to support the most important people in Northern Ireland — the older generation.
Lord Morrow: I regret the attempt to divide the House on an issue around which Members should unite. It beggars belief that, on such an issue, and while paying so much lip-service to the elderly, two parties have united in an attempt to amend the motion. Why they cannot support the motion is beyond me; they gave not a single reason. Not one of their Members could find fault with it. They have been exposed as wanting to play politics with an issue that should be above politics.
As one goes through life one learns to judge people by what they do rather than by what they say. It is certainly better to judge political parties in that way. Let us examine what some parties do when they can help the aged. When my party drafted its manifesto, it took the matter so seriously that it drew up a 12-point commitment to senior citizens; others sat idly by and did nothing. Today, they pay lip-service to the elderly and claim to be very concerned.
Furthermore, when Nigel Dodds and I were Ministers we did more than pay lip-service to the elderly; we pioneered the winter fuel payment on their behalf. We also introduced an A to Z guide to help and assistance —
Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. When Mark Durkan was Finance Minister, he prioritised fuel poverty and the then Minister refused —
Madam Speaker: That is not a point of order.
Mr Dallat: The Member brandishes his party manifesto. Is it not a rule of the House that exhibits should not be displayed?
Madam Speaker: I will look into that, although I understand that that is, by convention, permissible.
Mr Dallat: I was rebuked when I held up a book entitled ‘Lost Lives’. If that book was not acceptable, a DUP manifesto is scarcely permissible.
Madam Speaker: I totally agree.
Lord Morrow: When you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, you always know the one that you have hit. [Interruption.]
If you have something to say, Mr Ervine, get up and say it. Normally you are not worth listening to.
Mr Berry spoke earlier and hit the nail on the head when he said that that we must say with a clear and united voice to everyone out there that we are serious about this matter. The challenge to the House is whether Members are really serious — are we here to pay lip service to helping the elderly or do we really want to better their lot? Members will see in a few moments which is the case.
If the House unites with me on nothing else, it should unite with me in paying tribute to Help the Aged and Age Concern and acknowledging their superb work in helping that section of our community. Those organ-isations are very often a link to the outside world for many people, particularly those who live alone.
I wish to share some relevant and important statistics with the House. The population of Northern Ireland in 1999 was 1·7 million, of which 472,000 people were aged 50 or older. The proportion of the population aged 60 and over is 27·9%; the proportion aged 75 and over is 9·1%. Twenty-four per cent of households are headed by a person over 65. The proportion of older households who are owner-occupiers is 57%; 33% are in Housing Executive accommodation. Those figures speak for themselves. There is a direct challenge here for us as public representatives and as an Assembly, and a great responsibility lies upon us.
Mr Shannon: Two thirds of the acute beds in the Province are filled by the over-65s; there have been 600 burglaries, 350 violent crimes and 210 assaults carried out in six months against the elderly; £1 million pounds in benefits is unclaimed. Does the Member agree that it is urgent that an interim commissioner for the elderly be appointed right away?
Lord Morrow: I accept the point and thank Mr Shannon for bringing that to the attention of the Assembly.
I take issue with Mr McCarthy — and I am sorry that he is not in his place at the moment — in relation to his point on free travel. It was the DUP Ministers Peter Robinson and Gregory Campbell who introduced that. Mr McCarthy made the inaccurate comment that free travel does not include the Strangford ferry. I want to clarify that, because it was the same two Ministers who pioneered the free travel on the Strangford ferry. [Interruption.]
The Member can shake his head, but it is a fact. [Interruption.]
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: That wee man from Coleraine would not know.
Lord Morrow: He would not know; that is right.
‘The Irish News’ carried an article on 30 January about the work of Help the Aged. They brought to light the startling figure that one in every eight older people is subject to abuse of some shape or sort. That is a startling figure, and the Assembly has to say that this issue must be tackled.
I welcome Mr Dodds’s comments. He outlined, in some detail, what he envisages the role of a new commissioner to be. However, he also struck an important note when he talked about the importance of not depicting the elderly as not fit for purpose. Take a look round the House today: many elderly people make a valuable and useful contribution, not only to the life of the Assembly, but to work outside it.
I do not regard the elderly as less articulate, less skilful or less able. Many are highly capable and should not be dumped as though they are the rubbish of society when they reach 50, 60, 70 or 80 years of age.
Some people, when they reach the twilight years of their lives, make a greater contribution to society than they did when they were younger. It is, therefore, important for the Assembly to unite in support of the motion proposed by my party colleague Mr Paisley Jnr.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls for the appointment of an Independent Commissioner for Older People who would have the necessary powers to effectively promote, safeguard and protect the rights of older people.
Resignation of Patricia Lewsley
Madam Speaker: I wish to advise the House that I have received a letter of resignation from Ms Patricia Lewsley. Her resignation takes immediate effect; therefore, the arrangements provided for in Standing Order 17(h) will apply. I remind Members that Mr Durkan, the nominating officer for the SDLP, may exercise the right to vote in respect of that vacancy.
Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is that resignation effective from today, yesterday or now?
Madam Speaker: It takes immediate effect.
The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —
Free Personal Care
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on free personal care.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wish to raise a concern. The Speaker has, very helpfully, provided Members with a copy of correspondence from the Secretary of State detailing his response to the Assembly debate on the review of public administration (RPA). It appears that the Secretary of State is ignoring the wishes and representations made in that debate.
On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I wish to register my great dissatisfaction that, in this Transitional Assembly created by the Secretary of State, he is not prepared to accept the democratic will of the Assembly and its view on the RPA. I would be grateful if, through the Speaker’s Office, that view could be conveyed to the Secretary of State.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I will refer your concern to the Speaker, Mr Kennedy. However, it was not a point of order.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to speak; all other Members will have 10 minutes.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on an incoming Executive to undertake an independent review to establish the cost, and resources required, of implementing free personal care for the elderly, taking note of the experience of the Scottish Executive and Scottish local authorities, and to provide a timetable for the introduction of such free personal care in Northern Ireland.
This motion concerns many people in our country: almost 30% of our population are aged over 50; and more than 16% are over retirement age, which is 65 years for men and 60 years for women. In some areas, pensioners number an even higher proportion of the population. In Belfast, for instance, pensioners account for almost 18% of the population. By anyone’s standards, the pensioner population is therefore a very significant and — in my view, at least — undervalued segment of society.
Society is ageing. By 2025, for the first time, the number of people in Britain over the age of 60 will outnumber those under 25. That trend will accelerate as the large post-war baby-boom generation enters retirement. In sheer population terms, therefore, public policy will need to focus significantly more on the older population than it does at present. Political establishments will also have to sit up and take notice of older people as the number of older voters increases. Even if politicians do not take policy decisions in the interests of older people on grounds of basic human decency, they will have a very good reason for doing so as the older persons’ vote increases. Unlike twenty-somethings, older people actually cast their votes.
Free personal care for the elderly is an aspiration that we in the Assembly must work towards in the most practical and fiscally responsible way possible. That is why, through the motion, I advocate a proper, fiscally prudent and responsible way forward and why I advocate that the incoming Executive urgently commission an independent review to establish the cost and resources required to implement a programme of free personal care for the elderly in our Province.
That method of proceeding is important as a statement of the Assembly’s maturity in its approach to framing legislation. Members owe it to the taxpayer to take a hard-headed practical approach on all aspects of public spending, no matter how sensitive or desirable that spending may be.
Anyone can demand a wish-list without the responsibility of having to pay for it. Indeed, those parties that have never been in Government can easily demand this or that policy aspiration, knowing full well that they are never going to have to exercise the fiscal discipline to actually define where the money to pay for this or that scheme has to come from. That fiscal discipline should apply to everything that the Assembly does.
No matter how worthwhile the measure is, the electorate will not thank us if we spend its money without due consideration of where that money comes from or what other service will suffer. We must put it in the overall range of public spending in a prioritised order.
There is a range of factors that an incoming Admin-istration will have to consider and evaluate as part of an economic appraisal of a policy of free personal care for the elderly. I suggest that those should include demography and population projections for the 60-plus age group, based on census data and a healthy life expectancy. In Scotland, for instance, a 0·25% per year reduction was arrived at in the proportion of the older population that requires personal care services.
Again, consideration should be given to the level of informal care. In Scotland, they arrived at a figure of 12% based on some of the limited comparative inform-ation that was available from related research on the issue from America. Scottish experience has also indicated that there has not been a significant reduction in informal care, despite the rolling-out of a policy of free personal care for the elderly in 2002. I also suggest that an assessment of the level of unmet need is required. In Scotland, that was estimated at an annual range of between £15 million and £25 million; by extension, I estimate that the Northern Irish pro-rata level is between £5 million and £8·5 million. Cost progression is also an important factor to be considered. In Scotland, a 2% year-on-year real increase in the costs of care over and above inflation was assumed.
Workforce availability and associated training factors; the impact of changing patterns of care and care practices; the impact of inflation on all forward projections; and predictions of realistic delivery costs must also be arrived at. We must also consider the policy’s interaction with other financial support programmes, and the extent to which those might help to mitigate costs.
All the factors that I have listed are part of the complex evidential base on which to set the levels and the procedural base for rolling out a programme of free personal care for the elderly. That list is not exhaustive, and some areas are disputed, especially those associated with future growth costs.
Having said all that, and having set out the most effective way to proceed in the terms of both the motion and how a future Executive could handle the rolling-out of this programme, I am sure that free personal care for the elderly should be very high on the must-do list for the Assembly and its incoming Executive. Financial considerations aside, this policy is surely an acid test of any truly civilised society.
In two reports, as long ago as March 1999 and September 2003, the Royal Commission for the Long-Term Care of the Elderly recommended the introduction of free personal care, underwritten by general taxation, based on need rather than wealth.
It is true that some 70% of older people in long-term care get some state help with the costs. Many of those people will have had to use their not necessarily large capital, including the proceeds of selling their house, and so suffer the indignity of being reduced to penury before state support kicks in.
That is an unacceptable situation in any civilised society, and we must not allow it to continue. The issue must be tackled; elderly people have paid their dues to society throughout their lifetimes, and no one with any conscience believes that they should be reduced to penury before the state kicks in to help them.
As long ago as July 2002, the Scottish Executive introduced free personal care for the elderly — a move supported by all political parties in the Scottish Parliament. I hope that similar support will be shown in this Chamber. The debate on the future cost projections for that policy is ongoing in Scotland. However, the Scottish Executive and the Royal Commission have stated that it is affordable.
The charity Alzheimer Scotland has also said that tomorrow’s older people are more likely to be fit and active than those of previous generations, and will thus require fewer services. Had the Father of the House, my Friend Dr Paisley, been in the Chamber, I would have asked him to join me in bowing to the sentiment of that statement.
In 2005-06, free personal care cost a mere 1·73% of the Scottish health budget. According to evidence provided to the Assembly’s Health Committee in May 2002, the cost of free personal care in Northern Ireland would be between £40 million and £50 million. That figure equates to a mere 1·85% of the £2·7 billion Northern Ireland health budget for 2004-05.
In 2003 and 2005, the Ulster Unionist Party made manifesto commitments to work for the introduction of free personal care, and we intend to work hard to honour those commitments. The Assembly decision in 2002 to introduce free nursing care — but not free personal care — was intended to be, as recognised by the Royal Commission, a transitional position in the context of establishing the cost of, and securing resources for, free personal care. That decision was made some four years ago, and enough time has elapsed for the Assembly to take action on the matter as a priority.
With regard to providing free personal care for the elderly, change is the only option before the House. The current position must be changed. A research paper commissioned by the Scottish Executive showed that, with an increasing proportion of Scots owning their homes and with the value of almost all homes exceeding the capital limits for means-tested contributions to elderly care, a failure to adopt a policy of free personal care would result in the balance of cost moving away from the state towards homeowners. That was con-sidered to be a backward step, and one that would put social policy into reverse.
Northern Ireland faces the same issue. In 1971, 45·9% of Northern Ireland households were owner-occupied; in 2001, that figure had risen to 68·8%. The dramatic increase in home ownership in Northern Ireland will remove an increasing proportion of people from the existing publicly funded personal care safety net.
The Royal Commission’s report from 1999 states that:
“The system at the moment helps people who are poor, demands that people of modest means make themselves poor before it will help, and affects people to a lesser degree the richer they are and better able to afford the sums required.”
The Royal Commission has described free personal care for the elderly as:
“in the best tradition of social policy in this country”,
which ensures welfare, security and dignity for those of modest means who have worked, paid their taxes, saved and who own their homes. To introduce free personal care for the elderly would, therefore, be intrinsic to the way that we develop social policy in this country. It would be entirely consistent with the principles underlying the concept of a National Health Service and the social services that are provided. The time for that requirement to be provided has not only come — it is long overdue. I therefore have pleasure in moving the motion.
Mr McCarthy: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the research previously carried out on the costs of free personal care in Northern Ireland, as well as the results of the introduction of free personal care in Scotland, and calls on any incoming Executive to introduce free personal care in Northern Ireland as a priority.”
I disagree with little that the proposer of the motion said. However, Northern Ireland is awash with reviews, reports, consultations, etc, and we do not need to wait for any more research to be done on this subject. Before us is a 100-page report on free personal care in Northern Ireland, which was commissioned during the time of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has been updated until 2005.
I am delighted that this important issue has been brought to the Floor of the House. It does not seem that long ago that I stood in the same place and moved amendments to the Health and Personal Social Services Bill 2002 in order to provide free personal care alongside free nursing care for the elderly. Sadly, the other parties in the Assembly rejected my amendments at that time. The proposed measures did not have to be introduced immediately, but at the Minister’s discretion and when funding became available.
Had the amendments been included in the Bill, the Assembly would have been much further down the road towards accomplishing its goals. I am convinced that a golden opportunity to progress what has become an important subject in the meantime has been missed.
I am pleased that all Assembly parties showed their commitment to free personal care in their 2003 manifestos. The British Medical Association (BMA) also supports the provision of free personal and nursing care in Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party’s position is that no time should be wasted in fully implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations as soon as a new Executive is in place.
Following agreement by the Assembly to accept the Royal Commission’s recommendations on long-term care for the elderly in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly set up an interdepartmental group based on the Scottish Executive’s care development group.
The reasons given by the Sinn Féin Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the SDLP Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee for rejecting my amendments to the Health and Personal Social Services Bill 2002 on 24 June 2002 were that the necessary funding was not in place and that the time was not right. Indeed, almost any excuse was given not to include the amendments, which, as I said, did not necessarily have to be implemented there and then.
The Executive received a report in July 2002, which, as I said, has been updated on a yearly basis ever since. However, that report was never made public because of the suspension of the Assembly in October 2002. I managed to get a copy of the original report and its updates. It shows that the background work on this important issue has been done and it includes all the questions raised by Rev Coulter.
Scotland introduced free personal care in 2002, and the Scottish Executive gave money to local authorities to implement the policy. We can learn lessons from the experience there. The 2003 update of the Royal Commission’s report, the Sutherland Report, criticised the failure of Governments throughout the UK to implement the recommendations of its report and said that the state should exempt personal care from means-testing altogether. That is very important. Let us ensure that the next time the Royal Commission comments, it can add Northern Ireland to the list of the parts of the UK that have implemented the recommend-ations in full. Let the Assembly today end the scandal of older vulnerable people having to sell the roof over their heads — often the home in which they have lived for many years — to fund care for which they have already paid through the payment of taxes all their working lives.
The Alliance Party welcomes the change of heart on this issue, particularly the new commitment to free personal care from colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party. I hope that they, and all the other parties in an incoming Executive, will turn their paper promises into a living reality —
Mr Kennedy: Hear, hear.
Mr McCarthy: — and not duck the challenge at the last minute as they did on 24 June 2002. We need action, not further reports or consultation documents.
Dr McCrea: I support the motion, and I welcome this opportunity to debate the issues that it raises.
As many Members will be aware, my party played a prominent role in the Northern Ireland Assembly in highlighting the need for free personal care for older people. Many, if not all, elderly people in the Province have paid taxes and National Insurance in the belief that when they were old and in need, perhaps due to disease or disability, the state would readily assist them.
Like the Royal Commission’s 1999 report on long-term care for the elderly, we recognise that people can reasonably be expected to meet certain costs. The Royal Commission divided the care issue into a number of categories. It said that living and accommodation costs were the sort of costs to which people could reasonably be expected to contribute. However, it said that nursing and personal care costs should be met out of general taxation.
Our senior citizens deserve the right to retain their independence, pride and self-esteem and the right to be able to continue living in the area that they have made their home. As mentioned in the motion, the Scottish Executive introduced free personal care for the elderly. We can learn much from the Scottish experience, both positive and negative, and the bulk of my remarks will relate to the developments there and the lessons that we in Northern Ireland can learn from them.
In Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, projected growth patterns for the older population over the next 50 years are similar, with the population aged 85 and over growing most quickly. Variation in income, wealth and receipt of state benefits within the countries of the United Kingdom is greater than the variation between them. Thus, Scotland as a whole is broadly comparable with other parts of the United Kingdom in respect of its demographic characteristics and the average economic circumstances of older people. It provides a useful case study of the provision of free personal and nursing care, which has implications for other parts of the United Kingdom.
The Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee said that the policy, which was introduced in 2003, had provided greater security and dignity to many older people, but that demand was outstripping available resources in many of the country’s local authorities. The Committee said that the Scottish Executive should carry out a thorough review of resources required by councils to finance free personal care adequately.
In Scotland, local councils have this responsibility. Almost half of Scotland’s 32 councils had waiting lists for free personal care. There was confusion over whether the policy covered meal preparation costs, which were being charged by some councils but not by others. In 2004-05, the total funding of £147 million left councils with a shortfall of £73 million to provide free personal care.
The Health Committee report also stated that the Executive should “remove the financial incentive” for councils to delay assessments for free personal care by introducing a mandatory deadline or by allowing claims for free personal care to be backdated from the point of eligibility rather than the point of assessment.
According to a recent independent assessment conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, free personal care — such as help with washing, dressing and grooming — has alleviated money worries for older people in Scotland with modest means and has not led to a feared reduction in the informal support provided by relatives and friends. Initially, the Scottish Executive allocated £8 million for the increased provision of formal care to offset an expected reduction in informal care. There is no evidence, as yet, of any such switch. Indeed, free personal care at home has helped informal carers by giving them more time to do other less hands-on support tasks.
The independent report contains an economic analysis, which shows that the policy has cost more than expected. For example, in 2002-03, £127 million was spent compared with the £107 million planned. Similarly, in 2003-04, £143 million was spent rather than the expected £125 million. Nevertheless, that represents only 0·6% of the Scottish Executive’s total budget of £25 billion, so it had only a relatively marginal impact on spending in other areas.
However, Scotland now has waiting lists to restrict elderly people’s demands for free personal care. A statistical snapshot taken on a single day in February showed that 4,005 people were waiting to be assessed; an additional 709 people had been assessed but were still waiting to receive a service. The report anticipates that a major increase in the number of people aged 85 years or over might lead to a tripling of the public cost of personal care by 2053. However, a further shift towards the provision of more care services at home, combined with policies to promote a healthier life expectancy, can significantly reduce the projected bill.
Several wider lessons and conclusions can be drawn from the report. Free personal care can support clients’ wishes for person-centred care that is sensitive to individual needs. By shifting the balance of care, costs can be moderated. It is important that projections of future trends do not simply reproduce existing models of balance of care. A new approach to the costing of care packages that avoids the problematic classification of tasks and their allocation to different budgets could address many difficulties, for individuals and for the delivery and cost of service provision. Free personal care can make provision for people of modest means, especially women and people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, more equitable. For that group, personal care payments are no longer a burden, particularly towards the end of their lives, when such care is vital. However, they can still face charges for some aspects of their care.
There is a need for balance between nationally agreed priorities and local authority autonomy. Free personal care promotes more joined-up approaches, reduces money worries and enables informal carers to continue caring. Thus it can improve clients’ quality of life and support for their care choices.
The costs of free personal and nursing care expressed as a share of national output depend on underlying demographic change; they are also sensitive to the balance of care provision, a shift to more care at home, older people staying healthier for longer, changes in the cost of care, the rate of economic growth, and changes in the proportion of the population funding their own care due to changing rates of home ownership.
The future costs of personal and nursing care are uncertain. Unless cost increases are restrained, demo-graphic pressures will lead to substantial increases over the next 35 years. The rate of cost inflation in healthcare is several percentage points ahead of the general rate of inflation in the economy as a whole, and that should not be overlooked. In introducing free personal care in Northern Ireland, we would have much to consider. It may not prove as straightforward an undertaking as some imagine, but it is vital that we face the challenges and let our elderly population know that the Assembly and, possibly, a future Executive, would give a high priority to the senior citizens who have made this country as prosperous as it is.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. Like other Members, I thank the Rev Coulter and Billy Bell for tabling this motion calling on an incoming Executive to undertake an independent review leading to the implementation of free personal care. I also want to touch on the reviews and consultations that Kieran McCarthy mentioned. With that in mind, my party will support the amendment. Some Members highlighted the stark statistics on free personal care, and all of us in the Chamber have been working to ensure that it is introduced.
In this morning’s debate, in which calls were made for the appointment of a commissioner for the elderly, several Members spoke about the difficulties facing our senior citizens, ranging from brutal attacks to fuel poverty and ill health. It was interesting to note that it was yet another issue on which all the parties could agree and that they supported the motion and the amendment.
My party colleague Pat O’Rawe mentioned the fact that by 2020 more than half the population of Ireland will be over 60 years of age. It struck me that half the Members in the Chamber might reach that age next year or the year after. The Rev Coulter and the Rev McCrea both quoted some statistics, and I do not propose to go over them again. However, those statistics make it clear that the outlook is stark for those who gave so much to society and who, in many cases, moulded our communities into what they are today.
Society is judged by how we treat our young people and our elderly citizens alike. I would like to know how we would be judged. I also want to commend organisations such as Age Concern and Help the Aged, which for years have highlighted issues that affect the elderly in our society. Those organisations and others from the community and voluntary sector have ensured that those issues have remained centre-stage.
I am proud to support the motion and the amendment. In the last Assembly I tabled a motion on the no-day-named list, calling on the Executive to make finances and resources available for the introduction of free personal care. Kieran McCarthy will agree with me that none of the parties has paid lip-service to the issues. We all worked towards free personal care and agreed on it in the House and in the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Kieran McCarthy is also aware that when the then Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Bairbre de Brún, introduced free nursing care in 2002, she made it clear that she was keen to introduce free personal care. However, at that time, the Executive had not identified the financial resources. That was an issue then, and, four years on, it is still an issue. I hope that we do not have to wait another four years; the quicker that an incoming Executive sort that out, the better.
In the 2003 Assembly elections, as several Members have mentioned, the five main parties had a commitment to free personal care written into their manifestos. Con-sequently, 105 MLAs are committed to the introduction of free personal care. Everyone is working towards that. People who are directly affected — healthcare professionals, carers, stakeholders, politicians and families — also support the introduction of free personal care.
In 2002 and 2004, the BBC conducted surveys, ‘Your NHS: For Better or Worse’. In both surveys, viewers voted the issue of free long-term care for elderly people as the top NHS priority.
Discrimination in the provision of health services that are available to older people must be addressed. There must be an adequate level of nursing care and residential accommodation, as well as a wider review of services for people with head trauma, including strokes and resulting from accidents, the objective being to remove discrimination in the provision of services to those aged over 65.
The introduction of free personal care for all older people is essential. The refusal by the British Government to provide free personal care has serious implications. Rev McCrea gave the example of people who suffer from illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia may not be classified as a health need, and that will lead to the denial of necessary services.
The needs of carers must be addressed. When I was a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety — Rev Coulter will be aware of this — we took evidence from people who were carers for 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. That presented a stark image of the issues that must be addressed. An appropriate package should be funded to ensure that day-care provision, respite care and so forth, are available.
In Scotland, what has free personal care meant? There are three key elements to the legislation: free personal care for elderly people; the regulation of care services for elderly people; and the take-up of direct payments. That legislation has provided greater security and dignity for elderly people; it has allowed for them to be cared for more readily at home, assisted their carers and reduced the number of delayed discharges, thus freeing up NHS resources; it has largely ended disputes about the care of elderly people between local authorities and health boards; it has led to fewer complaints about the care of elderly people being reported to the Public Services Ombudsman; and it has prompted consideration to be given to the development of an elderly person care policy.
However, there have been concerns about the implementation of free personal care for elderly people in Scotland. Some Members have referred to these problems, which include: questions about the funding formula put in place by the Scottish Executive; the operation of waiting lists for free personal care by local authorities; the failure by the Scottish Executive to enforce clear guidance on key aspects such as the preparation of meals; the level of free personal care funding that has not increased in line with inflation — an issue on which this Assembly should keep an eye; and a lack of clarity regarding the date from which payments are required to be made, which could create a financial incentive for local authorities to delay assessments. This Assembly must learn from those mistakes and ensure that they are not repeated here.
During yesterday’s debate on the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability, I said that it is all well and good to have the debate and produce recommendations, but it is the outcomes that must be carefully monitored. I take on board what Rev Coulter said, and Sinn Féin will support the motion and the amendment.
Mrs Hanna: I support the motion. I was a registered nurse, and I spent the seven years before I was elected to the Assembly assessing older people for domiciliary care. Therefore, on a daily basis, I was in contact with older people who needed care. That experience brought home to me the unfairness of the system, which created uncertainty about the future care of people who were at the stage when they should have been able to make the best of their lives. At times, people considered it necessary to sell their homes to pay for their care. Those people had paid taxes and had scrimped and saved for a home of their own in order to provide for their family. This is, understandably, a hugely emotive issue.
Let us ensure that the Assembly will be up and running in March so that we can implement free personal care in Northern Ireland. To that end, I hope that the two largest parties will step up to the mark by accepting power sharing and by signing up to the requirements of a lawful society. That will enable us to get on with the real business that we were elected to carry out, which is to govern Northern Ireland. To do otherwise will mean that all of these debates on issues that we feel strongly about may well be useful, but will constitute nothing more than the product of a talking shop.
The SDLP is in favour of the full implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations on long-term care. It is impossible to separate the nursing and personal care elements of long-term care; they are not separated when elderly people are in hospital, so why should they be separated when they are at home or in residential care? I made that point in a statement on 1 January 2001, and I am sure that many Members supported me. It is long past time to give older people the dignity, equality and fairness in healthcare that they deserve. The complexity of separating the nursing and personal care elements is counterproductive.
I am disappointed that there has been point-scoring on this matter. Age Concern has given Members a list of the debates that have taken place in the Assembly, and no one here should be ashamed. Everyone has supported the principle of free personal care for the elderly. Members did not support Mr McCarthy’s amendment to the Health and Personal Social Services Bill on 24 June 2002 because we were in the middle of an interdepartmental review. Shortly after that review was completed, the Assembly was suspended. It is very unfortunate that we have not achieved free personal care, but it is now time to get on with it.
I would like to go through the main recommendations of the Royal Commission’s report, ‘With Respect to Old Age: Long Term Care — Rights and Responsibilities’. First, it states that, where the need for long-term personal care has been established, it should be provided free of charge. Secondly, it states that care should be provided on the basis of need, rather than on whether it is being provided at home or in hospital. Thirdly, it states that the whole community should share the risk of care payments — a cost best met through general taxation. Fourthly, the report states that the cost to the nation as a whole is affordable; around two years ago, the cost to the UK was calculated at around £1 billion a year.
What is personal care, and why have we ended up with such a complex system in which it has been separated from nursing care? Personal care has best been defined as help that would not be carried out by a registered nurse, but might include: help with personal care; help with dressing; help with mobility, including getting in and out of bed; and help with meals. No one is going to exploit that type of care. People are entitled to it.
Long-term care services for older people are acutely under-resourced. Re-igniting the debate exposes the complexity of the current system. I firmly believe in the National Health Service and I believe that older people should receive high-quality care for ever. In short, the system has to be fair, but meeting needs is very important. Older people are entitled to dignity and peace of mind.
I am a strong supporter of community care, and I firmly believe that the National Health Service should provide help and support for patients in community settings. Indeed, if we were better at doing that, we could use our acute hospital beds more appropriately.
Although it is not specific to today’s debate, I believe that providing for older people’s lesser needs — by ensuring that there were more podiatrists so that older people can stay on their feet, more physiotherapists and more occupational therapists — would be a real help. Through free travel and other measures, we can keep older people mentally and physically alert. As other Members said, some of us are getting closer to the point of free travel than others, so we all have a vested interest. It is also a fact that our older population is growing in size.
We cannot ignore the implications of funding for long-term strategic planning; we must develop an evidence-based approach to that. Whether older people are cared for at home or in care homes, it is essential that we have much more health-and-safety monitoring. I note the significant issues of cost and practicality that must be weighed when we consider those matters.
The motion in the name of the Rev Robert Coulter mentions the Scottish model. I have been following the Scottish experience with interest, but it is not without flaws, as other Members stated. It was estimated recently that 5,000 Scottish pensioners are waiting for personal care because many local councils, through which the funding is provided, do not have sufficient resources. Perhaps that system is not working out as had been hoped. That is all the more reason for watching that space carefully to see how Scotland manages its system. An impact assessment is being carried out, but we do not have the report yet.
Our dilemma has been compounded — as my colleague Margaret Ritchie mentioned during this morning’s debate — by the fact that practically all our statutory homes have been closed. That was a big mistake that the Thatcher Government made some years ago. We support the independent sector, which, we realise, has concerns about making its homes a viable business, but we must look at the matter from a health-and-safety point of view. We no longer have statutory homes, so we have lost that benchmark.
Finally, I restate that personal care should be available without charge for everyone in Northern Ireland who needs it, whether at home, in a care home or in hospital, whether they have Alzheimer’s disease or cancer. Such care is free for those with cancer, but it is not free for those with Alzheimer’s disease, and that is grossly unfair. I hope that an operational Assembly will soon be in place so that we can consider urgently implementing the necessary policies.
Mrs Foster: I support the motion in the names of Billy Bell and the Rev Robert Coulter. We have reflected much this afternoon on the Scottish experience, where nursing and personal care in residential homes is state-funded at a flat rate of £65 a week for nursing care and £90 a week for personal care. It is important to note that domestic personal care is also free.
There has been much talk of the Royal Commission’s 1999 report. Central Government implemented some of the commission’s recommendations but rejected the key measure of free personal care.
The current system of means testing may, on the face of it, seem fair, but it has many hidden problems. It is degrading to older people, Mr Deputy Speaker — an intensely proud group, many of whom still do not take up benefits to which they are entitled because of that pride.
Many older people who are by no means wealthy but who have a small amount of savings and may own their own home are forced to deplete their savings and sell that home to fund their care. Those people have been thrifty throughout their working lives, and they have put a little bit aside and want to provide something for their children when they are gone. However, the Government have denied them that right.
The need for long-term care is, of course, very unpredictable — any of us could need it — but at present, older people are being punished for that unpredictable contingency. In the United Kingdom last year, about 70,000 people had to sell their homes to fund their care. It is shameful that such a thing should happen in this day and age.
I declare now that I am a practicing solicitor, and every month in that practice I come across older people who are worried — indeed, some of them are very distressed — about their future. What kind of country does that to its elderly citizens? Hardly anything makes me angrier in my professional life than seeing older people despair about their future. [Interruption.] That will be the phone.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that they must switch off their mobile phones when they are in the Chamber.
Mrs Foster: In 2003, the Royal Commission updated its report. It noted that only 0·6% of the Scottish Executive’s £25 billion budget was spent on free personal care. Therefore the argument that free personal care would put an excessive burden on the block grant does not stand up to close scrutiny. Indeed, the Royal Commission concluded that the costs were a reasonable and proper claim on the public purse. I concur with that.
The introduction of free personal care will bring many ancillary benefits. Removing worry from our elderly people will be a huge relief to them. In addition, if people avail of free personal care in their own homes, hospital beds will be freed up. Indeed, Carmel Hanna referred to that. At present, many people remain in hospital for longer than is medically necessary. They must wait until a care package is arranged. That means that their stay in hospital is prolonged. If free personal care were available, they could be discharged earlier.
Recently in Fermanagh we had a very exciting presentation on the technological advances in telemedicine and how the most vulnerable in society can use those to enable them to remain in their own homes while being monitored at a distance by a healthcare professional. If we are considering introducing a free personal care policy — and I hope that we are — we should do so in the context of future technological advances.
Elderly people in County Fermanagh often tell me that, above all, they want to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. They do not want to have to go into a nursing or residential home. It would be wonderful if, as a result of the adoption of free personal care for the elderly, more of them could remain in their own homes. They would be happy in their place, and technological advances would mean that they would be free from fear.
The adoption of free personal care by the next Executive would empower the elderly community. That would be welcomed not only by elderly people but by their families, by their carers and by the public as a whole.
I support the motion, and I hope that the House will unite on this very important issue.
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I want to thank Rev Robert Coulter and Mr Bell for tabling this motion, and I am glad to contribute to the debate.
I want to examine some of the social circumstances that show why we need a domiciliary and nursing care provision that meets the needs of the elderly and vulnerable in our society.
According to the anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy, ‘Lifetime Opportunities’, 54,000 pensioners now live in poverty. Life expectancy is now more than 70 years of age for males and females, and that figure is likely to rise. In fact, a girl born today in one of our maternity hospitals has a life expectancy of 82·4 years, so people will be able to live much longer. That is partly down to our diet and how we look after ourselves, but advancements in medicine and technology also play a role. Many people who would previously have died from an illness can now enjoy longer lives.
We have an ageing population. Some have complex needs, and care for the elderly is becoming more difficult. As other Members have already said, many people want to continue to live in their homes, but they need support to enable them to do that, and it is becoming more difficult for elderly people to live with family members. We cannot ignore the fact that children of elderly people with complex needs and in need of long-term nursing care can find the situation hugely distressing. When care becomes a necessity, children experience guilt because they feel that they are letting their parents down. The heart-rending decision that those children face must be acknowledged. To add to their burden, the cost of nursing-home accommodation can be absolutely prohibitive.
I welcome the fact that, when she was Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Bairbre de Brún introduced free nursing care. Had the Executive not been suspended in October 2002, the ongoing work at the time, which my colleague Sue Ramsey outlined earlier, would have been completed by now.
Central Government’s refusal to provide free personal care has serious implications, for example, for people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia may not be classified as a health need, and that can lead to access to the care required being denied.
Carers’ needs must be addressed, and funding must be made available to provide appropriate support, including day care, respite care and domestic care. My colleague Pat O’Rawe outlined Sinn Féin’s agenda for older people when we published our ‘Forget Me Not’ charter. It recommended a number of actions to ensure that the older people’s rights and entitlements were fully protected. One of its priorities was free personal care for all older people.
The debate on free personal care is highlighted in the report ‘With Respect to Old Age: Long Term Care — Rights and Responsibilities’, which the Royal Commission on Long Term Care presented to Westminster in 1999. One key recommendation said:
“In our judgement it is right for the state to exempt personal care from means-testing altogether.”
The Scottish Executive implemented the Royal Commission’s recommendations in full in 2002, and the commission’s follow-up report in 2003 criticised the failure to implement the recommendations elsewhere. That exemption for personal care is an important issue not only for older people and their families, but for the wider public.
When we have an independent review, we must get it right. The Scottish Health Committee’s tenth report, which was published in June 2006, recommended that five initiatives be undertaken to address the problems with personal care that Scotland had experienced since the implementation of ‘With Respect to Old Age’ in 2002. The report said:
“the Scottish Executive should undertake a thorough review (based on the experience of the last 3 years) of the resources required by local authorities, collectively and individually, to adequately finance free personal care. This may require an increase in funding, or more equitable distribution amongst local authorities.”
The second recommendation was:
“loopholes that permit the use of mechanisms to effectively ‘ration’ free personal care should be closed, if necessary by changes to the legislation.”
The report continued:
“the Scottish Executive should enforce the guidance on those aspects of eligibility which local authorities claim remain ambiguous. It should ensure that services such as assistance with meal preparation, where they are part of assessed need, are eligible for free personal care.”
A further recommendation said:
“the Scottish Executive should also adopt a mechanism for determining the long-term level of financing of free personal care. They should decide whether to increase it in line with the rate of inflation or to use some other indicator as decided by themselves.”
The final recommended initiative stated:
“the Scottish Executive should remove the financial incentive for local authorities to delay assessment by either: allowing claims for free personal care to be backdated from the point of eligibility rather than assessment: or introducing a mandatory deadline for assessments, e.g. within two weeks of application.”
We must ensure that we look at the experiences of other places before we decide what model the incoming Executive should bring into being. When we implement free personal care for the elderly, it is important that we get it right.
Therefore it is important that we look elsewhere in order to ensure that we get the best possible package. As has been stated, we are judged by how we treat our elderly, our children, and the vulnerable in our society. We have a long way to go before our elderly feel not only protected, but valued. I support the amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mrs M Bradley: I support the motion. It is right and proper that we call for an independent review into care for the elderly. As the Member who spoke previously said, it is important for the elderly that any such review gets it right. Families with two elderly parents living at home often suffer greatly from a lack of free personal care. A parent who has the misfortune of having to be placed in a care home full-time or to remain in hospital permanently is penalised for owning his or her home. However, the parent who is left at home often comes out worse: he or she endures the stress and strain of having to find the money at the end of every month to pay for the other’s personal care, not to mention money to keep the home warm, pay bills and buy food.
People need to know that personal care should mean personal care, without their having to give away everything that they own in order to pay for that care. That is the worry that our older people face.
Older people who do not want to go into hospital or a nursing home but who want to remain in their own home also find it difficult to afford to pay for the necessary care that will allow them to do that.
I missed some of the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, for which I am sorry. I am sure that a great deal has been said on the subject. I would not delay any independent review. I would give it my support, provided that we conduct a proper investigation and get it right.
Mr Dallat: Free personal care is a basic service. It is a response to need and a recognition of the lifetime of service that tens of thousands of people have given in many ways to society. It is worth recalling that most of those people contributed to society during the past 35 years of horrendous difficulties. Many loved ones in both communities experienced poverty in one form or another. Poverty is not only about money; it is about loneliness, isolation and the lack of personal care.
The debate about cost is over. The issue is about implementing the service and ensuring that money is ring-fenced in order to sustain it. That will be the function of a new Assembly, and that is the challenge — nothing else.
Having spoken to families from eastern Europe over the years, I found that the one thing that they missed most after the fall of socialism was the protection that retired and elderly people were offered. Although I do not support a return to the past, it is important to point out that, even in countries where democracy had serious constitutional defects and money was scare, there was an emphasis on caring for the elderly and infirm. How much more important is it, here in the Western World, where we figure among the richest, that we should be able to offer free personal care? It is not something that should be offered in the future; it should be offered now, or at least after the March elections.
Let us bring to an end the need for the elderly to march to Belfast city hall to demand basic rights, which often, as I have said, they have done without the support of some of those Members who have offered platitudes. The real world is much easier to live in than the one where promises are made but never delivered. Personal care is often on the cheap, provided by relatives who receive no pay, give up their social life, lose their friends and who will lose out on a pension because they have not paid the necessary National Insurance contributions.
On occasions, personal care is left to good neighbours or even to strangers and voluntary organisations. Home helps make a massive contribution by working much longer hours than those for which they are paid.
They do not get a fair mileage allowance, as they rush from house to house to perform miracles in time limits that are outrageously short. Scrooges, masquerading as Government agencies, deliver personal care annually, and save something like £650 million because they do so on the cheap and at the expense of others.
Perhaps, for the first time, there is a sense of urgency about the issue. The practice of offering platitudes may be over; the human rights and dignity of the elderly seem at last to have become an election issue. If such is the case, and there is a clear commitment to the introduction of free personal care, Members can celebrate Christmas with a clearer conscience.
However, it remains the case that somewhere, perhaps not far away, there are older people who will have nothing to celebrate at Christmas: no friends, no visitors and no personal care.
I support the amendment. Let me make it clear that I have the highest regard for Rev Robert Coulter, who has displayed a lifetime of commitment to the care of the elderly. However, endless reports raise hopes but deliver nothing. The Good Friday Agreement promised equality for all, and that certainly included the elderly, who, as I said at the outset, worked through a lifetime of violence. They, more than most, are owed a peacetime of love and support. That has to include free personal care.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I support the amendment. Today has been a good day for the Assembly. However, Members must constantly remind themselves that this is merely a Transitional Assembly and that it has no power. However many motions the Assembly agrees, it will remain powerless to do anything to implement them. Today’s debates demonstrate the need for the Assembly to take control of its own destiny. If Members cannot implement the agreement reached this morning, or that which I hope will be reached this afternoon, we will have let down the elderly, who do not need further motions of support or declarations of intent — they need action.
Bairbre de Brún, as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, introduced free nursing care in 2002, but she was unable to secure finance from the Executive to pay for free personal care.
Mr Durkan: I will take this opportunity to advise the Member on two points. First, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, I — and the Executive as a whole — budgeted for free nursing care. However, the money was not spent, because the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and her Department did not produce the necessary legislation. Secondly, there was commitment to provide money for free personal care when proposals came forward.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
Mr O’Dowd: I am grateful to the former Minister. He will be aware that a motion on free personal care was denied because the rest of the parties on the Business Committee would not agree to it.
With respect to legislation, the then Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety brought forward a raft of wide-ranging legislation. Had the Assembly been permitted to complete its term, I have no doubt — and I am sure that the Member has no doubt — that free personal care would have been included.
Mr Durkan: The budgeted money was already returned.
Mr O’Dowd: Thank you.
The motion sets out a mechanism for the way forward. That is important, since there are concerns that parties are entering another consultation process. Members are going to end up being politicians in power — they will no longer be politicians in opposition, shouting comments from the Back Benches. They will have to map out a realistic fiscal way forward.
Despite all Members agreeing, as do I, with the sentiment that free personal care should be introduced immediately, the incoming Executive will have to plan their finances, as will the Programme for Government Committee and its subgroups, which meet here regularly. It also brings into question other developments that are going on around us. The comprehensive spending review, which Margaret Thatcher used to refer to as cuts and which the Labour Party now refers to as a spending review, will impinge on an incoming Executive.
It highlights the need for any new Executive to have tax-raising or tax-varying powers. As Robert McCartney reminded the Assembly yesterday, our hands are tied, fiscally, by the British Exchequer. Despite the best intentions, and finances being made available or not, it will be difficult for any incoming Executive to introduce all the measures that they would like to. Members must examine seriously the matter of tax-raising powers and tax-varying powers.
As I said, a Cheann Comhairle, I support the motion and the amendment, which, I believe, the proposer of the motion is willing to adopt. In the near future, I hope that we will be in a position of power and able to implement the policies that have been the subject of today’s debate. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to the debate; it is an important and vital subject that has been on the agenda for too long. With regard to implementation, I hope that when March comes around and a new Executive is in place, there will be no more pussyfooting around. That is why I tabled the amendment. We have had reports, consultations, and debates until they are coming out of our ears. They have been updated in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and I am sure that they will be updated in 2006.
The information is there in great detail. There is no need to delay the implementation of free personal care for all our citizens who require it. The last time that we discussed the issue I said that if it is good enough for Scotland, it is good enough for Northern Ireland. There have been ups and downs in Scotland, but personal care is provided free, and that is what we want to achieve. The last thing that we want is for our senior citizens to have to sell their homes to find dignity and peace in their ageing years. I appeal to Members to support the amendment and to take action on this issue as soon as the Assembly comes into being in March.
Mr Elliott: I welcome the opportunity to make the winding-up speech in this debate. In case anyone feels that they are not seeing right, I am neither Rev Robert Coulter nor Billy Bell.
I wish to declare an interest in the issue of free personal care for the elderly. It may not affect me personally, but, as someone who lost his father in the middle of the summer after he had suffered for 20 years with advancing Parkinson’s disease — and my mother-in-law has had severe Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years — I am aware of the personal difficulties that many of our senior citizens in this Province face.
In the event of devolution, local politicians will have to make tough decisions that will impact on us all. Members heard Kieran McCarthy highlight some of the issues. The plight of the elderly and the care that they receive is one area where a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly has the potential to make a significant difference in the Province. As medicine advances, our life expectancy continues to rise. Many developed economies are struggling to cope with the modern demographics, which show an increase in the number of elderly people and a fall in birth rates — the problem that immigration is often cited as a tool to remedy.
My colleague in Fermanagh and South Tyrone Arlene Foster spoke about new technology that may be installed in the homes of senior citizens in Fermanagh. Given all the technological advances, it is disgraceful that in this day and age, those living in the area served by the Sperrin Lakeland Health and Social Care Trust must wait two years and four months for an assessment by an occupational therapist. Even those on the priority list must wait four months. In these days of modern technology, that should not be acceptable in the care of the elderly. A functioning Assembly could make a significant difference to such problems.
Several of my constituents who contacted me when on a waiting list, particularly the routine waiting list, passed away before an occupational therapist’s report or assessment could be done — and I would be surprised if other Members had not had the same experience. The assessment may have been for something simple, such as the adaptation of a bathroom or bedroom at a cost of only £1,000. However, because those people did not have that kind of money, they could not go ahead with it. That is totally unacceptable.
According to Age Concern Northern Ireland, between 1996 and 2036 the percentage of the population in the Province aged 65 or over will almost double from 13% to 24%; and by 2020 one in four EU citizens will be aged 60 or over.
As the members of each generation move from the world of work to retirement, it is only right that they receive the required personal care from the state — they should not be forced to sell their homes to fund it. The older generation has contributed to building a prosperous nation from which everyone benefits. It is ironic that many of those who have worked positively for the Province and the nation must sell their homes to provide for themselves in their advancing years. In the modern age, that too should be unacceptable.
Members of the Assembly are lucky to have the opportunity to learn from Scotland’s experience of the provision of free personal care. Perhaps Scotland did not get everything right, but at least, as other Members indicated, the Assembly can get it almost right. The system will never be perfect, but the Assembly can build on the progress made in Scotland. In June 2006, the Scottish Health Committee reported on the care legislation and concluded that the introduction of free personal care was broadly successful. The UUP wants it to be even more successful in Northern Ireland.
However, the report raised questions about the implementation of the policy. As expected, there is intense demand for free personal care, and the amount of money allocated to implementing the policy means that supply falls short of demand. The Committee also felt that funding should be index-linked, which is something that the Assembly must carefully consider before rushing headlong into the provision of personal care for the elderly.
In addition, there appears to be ambiguity about the eligibility criteria; about half of local authorities operate a waiting list, which has led the Committee to refer to a postcode lottery for care. Enough has been heard about postcode lotteries in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to education; the same should not apply to the provision of care.
In June 2006, the Scottish Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform, Tom McCabe, published a consultation document entitled ‘Transforming Public Services’. I wonder whether the responses to that consultation will receive as little regard as those received on the RPA in Northern Ireland. Mr Hanson is tasked with overhauling the entire public sector: local government; health boards; enterprise companies; the Fire and Rescue Service; the police force; and various quangos.
Leaving aside the controversy over the seven-council model, the RPA will bring about major changes in the structure of the provision of health and social care in Northern Ireland. As Members go back to the drawing board to redesign public services, it is the opportune time to provide the type of personal care that our elderly people deserve.
We do not have an open chequebook, and this will, of course, require funding. However, as is the case for prescribing drugs for breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis, committing the funds and tackling the problem early is beneficial to the patient, the family, the carer, and the NHS.
It is very difficult to get enough carers in the local community to look after people in their own homes. Many carers who work for various trusts and agencies are paid a pittance for the work that they do. Some are provided with no additional travelling time between visits and are run off their feet for very low wages.
Family carers also receive very poor recognition in Northern Ireland. Many people give up lucrative careers and good jobs to look after relatives, whether that involves looking after elderly people or those handicapped in some other way. They do not receive recognition and they are being used by the state. That is unacceptable and it must be addressed.
We must learn from the Scottish Executive and not just implement the policy as it was implemented in Scotland. We must build on their experiences.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the research previously carried out on the costs of free personal care in Northern Ireland, as well as the results of the introduction of free personal care in Scotland, and calls on any incoming Executive to introduce free personal care in Northern Ireland as a priority.
Madam Speaker: Before I adjourn the Assembly, I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas and an extremely successful 2007.
Adjourned at 3.23 pm.