I welcome the opportunity to speak on the matter. At the outset, I indicate my appreciation to the many good people who provide care for our elderly population, whether it is in residential homes, nursing homes or through domiciliary care or whatever else. Indeed, many volunteers provide support to our elderly.
Abuse is wrong when it is perpetrated against vulnerable people, whether they happen to be the elderly, children, the learning disabled or whatever. It is always wrong, and we, as a society, should always take whatever actions we can to ensure that the people who perpetrate abuse are brought to justice for it. I welcome the motion and the opportunity it creates to debate a very important subject.
Mr McKinney rightly pointed out that the motion deals only with allegations of abuse against older people in care homes. We know that people in the domiciliary care setting — in their own homes — have also been victims of abuse. There have been cases where people have stolen people's food and done other things to them that have made the headlines. Therefore, it is incumbent on us and it is very important that, whatever we do, we ensure that we encompass all aspects of care of our elderly population and ensure that we offer adequate protection and safeguarding.
Legislation in and of itself may be helpful. That is something that we need to tease our and investigate further. However, legislation alone will not be enough. The truth is that we need to look at how we care for our older people. In my previous role, I expressed many times the view that the most significant challenge I had was the care of the elderly. It is not about cardiac care or cancers, because those things can be dealt with. Sometimes we have success and sometimes we do not, but there is a means of dealing with them. With the growing elderly population, we face a real challenge as an Assembly and an Executive along with the Department in how we respond to that.
There is a massive difference between care homes. Some of them are superb, and others fall well short of expectations. Very often, you will know instantly when you enter a care home — just by the smell of it — whether it is a good home or not. Very often, the care homes that deliver the best are the ones that have a fairly modest top-up of maybe £30 per week. That suggests to me that if all care homes were operating with a bit more money — not lots more money, but a bit more money — the standards would rise fairly dramatically across the system.
In Northern Ireland, we are not in a position to pay that money. That is the crude reality of it.
The truth is that, if you want to address the problem, you need to ensure that care homes can, first, employ people whom they have had the opportunity to adequately train and who are suitable to work with the elderly. Tesco is able to offer £2 or £3 an hour more for a job stacking shelves than people get for looking after our elderly. We need to ensure that care homes can take on the right people, can train them adequately and have the right management structures in place for supervision.
I must make it clear that am not against legislation, but there is so much more that can be done without legislation. We need to work closely with the care home sector and ensure that the standards that it provides are standards that we find acceptable. These people are our elderly population and our relatives, and, some day, it may well be us. It is absolutely critical that we get this one right and provide the appropriate care for our elderly population. If legislation helps, bring it on, but we need to look at a much wider picture than legislation alone.
Will the Member give way?
I thank the Member for mentioning that abuse takes place not just in care homes but outside them as well. Does the Member support tougher sentencing for people who perpetrate crimes against the elderly?
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