Health Trusts: Mileage Policy

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 8th November 2016.

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Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP 3:00 pm, 8th November 2016

5. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Health whether she has any plans to review the mileage policy in relation to essential car users in health and social care trusts. (AQO 615/16-21)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The mileage rates are not set by me; they are set by the management and staff side representatives from England, Scotland and the North of Ireland in partnership through the NHS Staff Council. The council reviews the rates twice a year on the basis of the motoring costs that are published by the AA, in order that they can be moved up or down in line with the current motoring costs. All HSC employees are reimbursed for miles travelled in the performance of their duties that are in excess of the home to agreed work base return journey. Normally, the miles eligible for reimbursement are those travelled from the agreed work base and back. The current rate of reimbursement for privately owned cars is 56p per mile up to 3,500 annual miles and 20p per mile thereafter.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I thank the Minister for that answer. I put on record my disappointment that the Minister would not meet me to discuss the issue. Given that some people, particularly those in the crisis team, travel well in excess of 10,000 miles per year, which drops them to 20p per mile, does the Minister agree that it is unfortunate that those who work in that difficult circumstance, covering most parts of Northern Ireland, actually subsidise the health service by using their own cars?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I have so many requests for meetings that I could not possibly meet everybody, but I gave consideration to your letter. You wrote to me on the issue at some stage in the past. It is important that staff are supported; it is really important that they are supported to do their job well. That was key in Delivering Together and how we go forward. We have to support our staff; they are the biggest asset of the health service.

In relation to the policy around the mileage, it is not something that I set. I could give it consideration if it was something that I set. Perhaps, if we had that power devolved and it was in my capability, I could do something about it. The Member has raised the issue that he is concerned about rural workers, and that is a legitimate concern. I will not be found wanting in my support for those staff, if there is ever an opportunity for me to feed into the policy development. Obviously, with the AA setting the rates, it is difficult to step outside that. It is also not something that I am being lobbied about by unions, for example, who are part of the staff side negotiation, but let us keep it under review. I want to do everything I can to support the staff out there who do excellent work, and I particularly understand the challenges for those who work and look after people in rural areas.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Will the Minister advise when the last review was carried out?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

In line with the collective agreement, a review of mileage rates was conducted in November 2015 using AA information on fuel prices over a 12-month period ending in October 2015. It was found at the time that fuel price changes were insufficient to trigger a change in the mileage rates as there was no change to the mileage rates in use across the HSC. It was not possible for a review to be carried out in May 2016 as intended, as the AA had not published updated information on fuel costs. As an interim measure, the NHS Staff Council put forward a proposal that, if there is a change in rates following the next review in November 2016 — this month — the change would not be backdated, avoiding the need for either the recovery of overpayments if the rate goes down or the calculation of arrears for reimbursement should rates go up. The HSC joint negotiation forum's executive committee agreed the proposal at its 25 July meeting this year.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as na freagraí. The issue around discharges was referred to earlier, and part of the problem for discharges is the lack of available domiciliary care provider packages. What input does the Minister have to ensure consistency of terms and conditions of employment, including mileage, in the independent domiciliary care provider sector, which is leading to problems with discharges?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I agree with the Member on the previous question, when the problem of being unable to secure proper domiciliary care packages was highlighted. The Member will also know that, on many occasions, I have said in the House that domiciliary care workers are the backbone of the health service. The workforce is predominantly female, they are the lowest paid in the health service, and, when they pay for their mileage out of their own wages, their wages go down even further.

I am about to take receipt of a review of domiciliary care, and I look forward to delving into it. More domiciliary care workers should be employed in-house in the health service. We have a relationship with the independent sector, where the majority of domiciliary care workers are employed, and quite often they do not receive payment for mileage. That leads to problems with recruitment, particularly in rural areas. People cannot go out because they are already on a low wage and the cost of mileage brings it down even further.

We can do more. Along with the domiciliary care review and the adult social care review that we will have next year I want to see a changing picture where we have more domiciliary care workers employed by trusts. We should, as far as possible, employ the majority of them. It may not be possible for financial reasons, but I certainly want to change the current picture, where the majority are outside the health service and the minority are inside it.

Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP

I thank the Minister for her clarification of mileage rates for domiciliary care staff, and I welcome the fact that a review is under way. Can the Minister confirm that she supports domiciliary care staff being reimbursed for mileage? Can she also confirm that she has lobbied hard, and will she tell me what she has put in place to ensure that contractors are forced to reimburse their staff fairly?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I am in constant conversation with the Finance Minister about procurement and how we can secure better terms and conditions when we have to go to the independent sector. If we are serious about supporting the lowest-paid workers in our society, we should ensure that, when we procure services, we do them justice by making sure they are part of the contract. Obviously, we are in a difficult financial situation, and domiciliary care provision is fragile at times. We need to ensure that we do it in a proper and planned way. I am absolutely supportive of domiciliary care workers receiving a fair wage for the work that they do.