Improving services for people with a learning disability remains one of my highest priorities. Through continued implementation of the Bamford action plan, my Department, in collaboration with other Departments and agencies, is working to deliver improvements across a range of learning disability services. These include the ongoing resettlement of people from learning disability hospitals into community settings, improved access to more flexible and appropriate respite provision and day opportunities, and support through the transition to adulthood.
The health and social care review report presents a compelling case for change and explains why our current model of health and social care services is not sustainable into the future. In setting my vision for the future of health and social care services, my overriding concern is to drive up the quality of care and improve outcomes for patients and clients and ensure that they have the best possible experience in every aspect of their care. Key to that is promoting prevention and early intervention measures with the overarching objective of avoiding unnecessary hospital admissions.
I also fully recognise the need for greater productivity from the resources available to us, particularly in times of austerity. The learning-disabled community has a huge contribution to make to society in general. Last week, I attended a conference held by the Patient and Client Council, which helps to establish other facts as regards how we provide support and care.
The Minister for Social Development is being particularly co-operative in supporting communities and ensuring that we get significant assistance in meeting the Bamford commitments of having appropriate homes for people who have a learning disability as opposed to them being in hospital.
Minister, parents across Northern Ireland will be reassured to hear today that helping those with learning difficulties is one of the highest priorities for you and the Department. It is a hugely emotive, delicate and sensitive matter. Does the Minister envisage any difficulties this year with people with learning difficulties leaving school and looking for care in the community?
Historically, there has been a problem. It is a major challenge to have adequate places for the number of people who leave school and receive support in, for example, adult resource centres and, indeed, those who want to continue to use adult resource centres. One of the issues is that, because we are much more successful in supporting people, people with learning disabilities are living to considerably older ages and, consequently, need the services for longer. That poses a challenge to us, and it is a question of how best we can address that challenge. However, we recognise the valid point that the Member makes.
What level of short-term respite care provision is available to the families of those with learning disabilities in Northern Ireland, and does it meet current need?
Respite care is certainly an important issue for us. The Health and Social Care (HSC) Board works quite closely with the trusts and seeks to make significant improvements to the availability and flexibility of respite care. That has to be particular to the needs of parents and carers. I regard respite care as a significant investment that pays us a significant dividend. If we do not support carers and they fall ill themselves, that will create a much greater burden for us in respect of the care that has to be provided.
As a Government, we could never replicate the care that carers provide. I put on record once again my appreciation of the work that they do. We will seek to provide appropriate respite, where possible, while recognising that it will not always be possible to meet everybody’s needs.