Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 5th December 2016.
6. Mr McMullan asked the Minister for Communities for his assessment of the Supporting People programme. (AQO 836/16-21)
The Supporting People programme has been in place since April 2003. It continues to provide quality services that help over 18,500 vulnerable people each year to live independently. Supporting People is a priority for my Department. I have seen at first hand the excellent work done by Supporting People providers and have met a number vulnerable people who have had their life turned around by Supporting People services.
The Department carried out a review of the Supporting People programme last year. The conclusion was that the programme had achieved its core aims of delivering significant quality-of-life benefits to those who have received and continue to receive services. The review, however, also identified a number of areas in which action is needed to improve further the impact of the programme, its economy and its efficiency. I have ensured that those recommendations are being actively addressed by my officials in partnership with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Department of Health and the voluntary and community sector. The work is being monitored by an implementation steering group led by my Department. The improvement programme is on track.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he expect the introduction of the living wage to have any impact on the Supporting People budget?
It is an area that has been raised with me by providers. The increase in the living wage will create a cost pressure for some of the people who provide the service. That will present a further financial challenge. The needs of individuals are complex and increasing, so there is already pressure on the finances available, but, with increases in the national living wage, the providers are also highlighting the fact that that is creating a cost pressure. I have sought to try to meet some of the pressures this year by providing an additional £3 million. In cognisance of the pressures that are going to be in the Budget, a review has been carried out. We have identified where we believe that improvements can be made, but all of that has to be carried out in collaboration with the providers involved. They are actively involved in the process. It is for individual providers to identify how they can provide their service efficiently and effectively within the budgetary framework that I have. The Budget process is ongoing, so I will not know the outcome of that until it is completed by the Executive.
Thanks to the Minister for his answer. Will the views of Supporting People providers, such as the Lighthouse in my constituency, be considered prior to the implementation of any review recommendations?
I thank the Member for his supplementary question. The Department has established the implementation steering group, which I referred to in my original response, to drive the implementation of the 13 recommendations. That steering group includes representation from the committee that represents independent Supporting People providers. My Department has engaged extensively with the wider Supporting People sector throughout the compilation of this report and will continue to do so prior to and during implementation. That voice is critical.
I have met a number of providers; those organisations and the people in them. I can tell that many of those whom I have met have huge compassion and real drive and enthusiasm for trying to help people who are incredibly vulnerable. When I was with Depaul in Stella Maris or in the hostel in the Village area with Mr Stalford, I could see how the benefits of the Supporting People programme are being delivered. I was in Londonderry last week to open the North West Methodist Mission's new refurbished buildings, and I got speaking with some of the individuals who get that initial support. They are supported to move on into further independent living while still getting some support, and then, eventually, they are able to move on into the community.
I recognise the huge contribution that the organisations that get support from my Department through the Supporting People programme are making. They often go beyond the call of duty for individuals who need help and who have very complex needs, and they are achieving results. As we move forward, it is vital that the voice of those providers is very much part of the process, and it will be.
I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. What engagement has his Department had with the Health Minister and her officials to assess whether the Supporting People programme, as outlined in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's housing related support strategy, has met the Bamford review-related targets?
I am happy to take up the individual area that the Member has highlighted. However, I want to reassure her that I met Minister O'Neill and Minister Sugden in the inter-ministerial group that exists to tackle homelessness. The three Departments are proactively engaged in seeking to address that. There will be a new homelessness strategy that the Housing Executive is responsible for and which I hope will be out for public consultation soon. There is a statutory requirement for a new homelessness strategy to be put in place in April next year, and, in preparation for that, my Department has been leading in having focused groups of officials come together from a range of Departments and organisations to ensure that, when the new strategy is put in place, everybody is very clear as to their responsibilities for implementing it, so that we can have a successful conclusion to that particular strategy.
This is Homelessness Awareness Week, and we have been raising awareness of this issue. The Executive are very much committed to making this a priority to deal with, because people who find themselves in these circumstances often have underlying needs, which, in order to be met, require a range of organisations to work together to give support and help people to have their own home and live in it independently.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Supporting People has presented a very compelling case, which has been independently verified, for saying that its budget is effectively a preventative spend and that the problems that it tackles would cost public services a lot more if it did not make its intervention. In that context, and given the fact that demand for its intervention is rising, will the Minister assure us that that service will be protected and that it will be allowed to meet that demand?
I agree with the Member. The prevention that the Supporting People programme provides can often help individuals not to require assistance that they would need if they had not got it through Supporting People. It is much more expensive to get those public services as opposed to getting the intervention that comes through the Supporting People programme. That is why I have identified this area of my budget as one that I certainly give a priority to. I am making the case in discussions with the Finance Minister for areas in my Department that I believe need to be protected, and this is one such area. It has been protected in the past because of the parallel that can be drawn with the Department of Health. I am certainly putting the case forward that it should get protection in next year's Budget. Obviously, it is something that will be subject to the Minister for Finance's consideration and that of the collective Executive whenever we come to agreeing on the Budget, but this is a priority for me.
A brief question for Mr Lunn, and a brief response from the Minister.
The Minister mentioned a £3 million injection of funds this year. Prior to this, the Supporting People fund was frozen for nine years. What plans does he have to make sure this situation does not arise again, so that this very good scheme can continue and flourish?
Briefly, as indicated before, this was a protected budget, so while other areas of the Department's budget were reduced in line with reductions across the Department, this one was not because of the priority we attached to it. Obviously, there are financial challenges ahead, which is why collaboration is important. I addressed the providers at a conference and indicated that there needed to be more collaboration amongst them so that we can ensure the most effective and efficient systems are in place to help the people who need it, in the context of the financial difficulties and challenges that lie ahead.
That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions.