Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Topical Issue Debate
Seniors Alert Scheme
Some times when a Topical Issue matter is put down, it may not be clear what is being requested. In this instance we are looking for further and urgent consultation between the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, community groups and Muintir na Tíre on the seniors alert scheme. I am raising this matter on foot of serious concerns and reservations I have received from local communities regarding the move to transfer the administration of the scheme to Pobal.
The scheme, as it stands, is for the supply, delivery, installation and warranty of telecare equipment related to elderly and vulnerable people, equipment such as personal alarms and so-called panic buttons. The majority of the community organisations registered with the senior alerts scheme are community councils, community alert groups and neighbourhood watch groups. They have played a major role in caring for the elderly members of their communities. The transfer of the seniors alert scheme from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to Pobal has caused much concern among the voluntary community which administers the scheme on the ground, however. Muintir na Tíre has also expressed concerns, centring on the lack of proper engagement with the current service providers and stakeholders prior to the announcement of the tender.
I have received contact from community groups all over the county, and they have each told a similar story. This tender was announced without any consultation and its terms cast into real doubt the continued excellent level of service provided by community groups and service providers. I and my colleagues are asking that this process be put on hold in order to allow for proper in-depth engagement with community groups and service providers.
There is serious concern about the present plan to transfer the security alert scheme to Pobal. This scheme, by all accounts administered in an efficient and cost-efficient way through community and voluntary groups since 1996, has stood the test of time. There are hundreds of community and voluntary groups registered under it. There are approximately seven or eight companies as well as around 15 to 20 alarm companies involved. One company has 30,000 connections across the country. The new tendering process envisaged would limit this company and others to tendering for three areas out of the ten that Pobal has identified. This would inevitably lead to job losses in areas of maintenance, repairs, monitoring and supply. There is a huge risk that prices will increase and standards will fall. With over 150,000 customers, Pobal will be denying existing companies their ability to tender in a fair and equitable way, with no guarantee they would even win one of them.
Relationships have also been built up with elderly people and other groups. What consultations took place? Were existing businesses, community groups, suppliers and, most importantly, the consumers consulted? Is this another cost-cutting exercise? If so, lives could be put at risk if standards fall. Pobal has no experience in this area. Standards in alarms and what they do vary. Some are quite sophisticated, monitoring movement, smoke levels, carbon monoxide, medicine reminders, fall detections, and bed occupancy. We need to place a hold on this and consult further because I do not believe this is in the interests of the people. Any person or group I have spoken to has said that the system has worked well. Why do we need to do this?
My Department manages the seniors alert scheme, SAS, which encourages community support for vulnerable older people in our communities by providing grant assistance towards the purchase and installation of personal monitored alarms to enable older persons over the age of 65 and of limited means to continue to live securely in their homes with confidence, independence and peace of mind. The scheme is administered by local community and voluntary groups with the support of my Department. The maximum grant per beneficiary for equipment is €250 in respect of monitored personal alarms with pendant and €50 in respect of an additional pendant or re-installation. The annual monitoring costs, generally between €60 and €80, are borne by the beneficiary.
I am glad to say that from 2010 to the end of 2014, in excess of 41,000 people have benefited from the scheme at a total cost of €11 million. I have maintained the allocation for the seniors alert scheme in 2015 at €2.35 million, and that level of funding is sufficient to meet current demand levels for this important scheme. It is not a cost-cutting exercise.
Following the review of the old community support for older people scheme, CSOP, the forerunner for the seniors alert scheme, one of the key recommendations was that a centralised procurement process would simplify the scheme. By decreasing the level of administration for groups, this would allow them to spend more time on the key aim of the scheme, which is more and better interaction with older persons and would also achieve value for money through economies of scale. The Department undertook to consider new approaches to the seniors alert scheme in 2014 and arising from this it was decided that the scheme would be managed by Pobal.
Pobal's management and administrative services for the scheme included an invitation to tender for the supply and installation of personal monitored alarms, which was publicly advertised on eTenders on 20 October 2014. A panel of regional suppliers will be contracted to provide the equipment within specified regional areas while maintaining the benefits of local service provision. The tender process, which is being led by Pobal, is almost complete. As the market for the equipment is well established, it was neither necessary nor appropriate to engage in consultations with the market on the matter prior to the tender process.
Following discussion and advice from procurement consultants and input from my Department, it was agreed that the procurement would be split in two parts. The first part is equipment procurement. A three-year framework agreement for the direct procurement of the SAS equipment, that is the alarm units, was published in October 2014. A series of minimum quality standards, based on research from the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, private security agency and various agencies in both the UK and Ireland, were set as part of this tender. The tender was broken down into ten regional lots to ensure that SMEs were not disadvantaged due to excessively large sizes. This is pursuant to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Circular 10/14. There will be a panel of suppliers chosen in each regional lot. These suppliers will be ranked and the first supplier will be the supplier of choice for all local organisations in the lot unless they cannot meet the demand, whereby the next ranked supplier will then be chosen to supply the equipment. These rankings will be reviewed annually and poor performance can result in demotion in the panel. The choice of suppliers will be managed by Pobal to meet public procurement rules.
The second part of procurement is monitoring services. A voluntary monitoring services advisory panel was published via eTenders in October 2014. The purpose of this panel is to inform the beneficiaries of the level of costs and service associated with various suppliers' monitoring services. Entrants to this panel will need to meet a series of minimum quality standards to ensure that the older person is getting a good quality of service. I must emphasise that the use of this panel is voluntary and the older person can choose to continue with their existing monitoring company or can choose any supplier to provide this service. Entrance to this panel is on a rolling basis over the course of 2015.
Other Deputies such as Deputy Michael Moynihan of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Tony McLoughlin of Fine Gael and also Deputy Michael Creed have received similar communications and share our concerns. This is a genuine cross-party call to the Department and to the Minister of State. We all share the concerns of the community groups that are dealing with this on the ground. They are the experts and they feel they have not been consulted properly. Efforts need to be made to facilitate real consultation on this matter in order, perhaps, to amend the terms of the tender to protect what is good and what works in the current scheme.
The big question is, what is the objective of the change? What is it supposed to achieve? The scheme works well as it is and the customers are very happy. What problem is the Department trying to solve? It is not clear. I ask the Minister of State to respond positively to this genuine cross-party request to consult with all stakeholders before bringing the current tendering process to a conclusion. It is important to listen and respond to the concerns of the customers of the scheme and the community groups that have played such an important role in making it a success.
I reiterate Deputy Ryan's point that this is an all-party request. We have received representations across the board from various people, including the people who avail of the service. Is the Minister of State aware that the companies currently engaged in this have collectively paid back more in VAT than the €2.3 million allocated to the scheme? The Minister of State has said this would promote more SME participation. What about the existing SMEs and the jobs and services they provide?
The Minister of State said it was not a cost-cutting exercise. There will be ten regional lots but if one can only tender for three and if one has 30,000 customers spread across the country, then one is limited and jobs will be lost. It will have a very serious impact. The Minister of State did not answer the question properly in terms of engagement with the different bodies, customers and suppliers. She said that in some cases it was not necessary. I do not accept that and believe they should have been consulted.
Over the next 30 years, the number of people in Ireland over the age of 65 is predicted to double to between 1.3 million and 1.4 million while the number over 80 is expected to quadruple to about 440,000. The Government recognises that quality of life and enabling older people to live life to the full at every stage will become increasingly important as the numbers of older people increase. The fact that more people are living for longer is to be celebrated and is one of the great successes of our age.
Research has shown that loneliness and isolation have a significant impact on the health and well-being of our older people. The risk factor involved in loneliness is as significant as smoking and greater than obesity. Unlike other schemes, applications under the seniors alert scheme do not come directly from the beneficiary but instead from the local community and voluntary groups. A key benefit of the scheme is the interaction between the beneficiary and the local groups which have a track record of working with, or providing services to, older people within their communities. The community group and the beneficiary enter into an informal social contract to remain in touch for a period of at least five years. This scheme has benefitted 90,000 older people at a total cost of some €32 million over the past ten years. Not only is it a fine example of preventative spend, it also improves the well-being of our valuable older citizens.
The operational hand-over between my Department and Pobal is proceeding and should be completed in June of this year. In the meantime, community and voluntary groups wishing to participate and draw down grant support under the seniors alert scheme can apply to my Department in the usual way. Pobal proposes to host a number of regional information sessions to assist local community groups in the transition to the new scheme. The regional information sessions will highlight any new processes and the benefits of the new approach. It will give the local organisations an opportunity to engage with Pobal staff and address any concerns they may have.
It is important to note that my Department will retain responsibility for the strategic policy direction of the scheme. It will also have an oversight role in regard to Pobal's delivery of the scheme and will ensure that the valuable community support for elderly persons provided by the many hundreds of community and voluntary groups across the country will be maintained.