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 aging 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 Governments 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 looks older than him, 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 above 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 as one with strength. 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.
We have neighbourhood watch schemes in many areas; they should be developed and extended across the Province. Police resources should be allocated to 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.
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 Aging 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.
In terms of 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 problem 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 value properly, 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.
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.
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, bring forward 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. Within that is 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 content 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.
What I am concerned about are 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.
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 brought senior citizens from all corners of Northern Ireland to Parliament Buildings on a regular basis 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 his 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 they have done to promote the interests of older people in Northern Ireland. I wish them well in their continuing work.
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.
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.
This 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 wanted 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
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.
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 —
When you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, you always know the one 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.
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?
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.]
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.
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.