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Far-reaching plans to transform adult social care in Northern Ireland have been tabled by Health Minister Robin Swann.

The reform proposals – numbering 48 in total – will be the subject of a 16-week public consultation.

A central priority of the reform plans is to significantly enhance both the amount and the quality of social care services – with a major focus on increasing investment to meet increasing levels of need. Growing the social care workforce and improving its pay, terms and conditions are emphasised as a “lynchpin” of reform.

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Recommendations also include stronger powers to regulate and inspect independent sector providers of care, covering such areas as levels of profit and management costs.

The Department of Health also intends to review the current balance between private, public and voluntary sector provision in social care. The aim will be to ensure the best balance is struck between statutory and independent sector provision.

Robin stated: “Northern Ireland has waited too long for reform of adult social care – and for the sector to get the recognition and support it both needs and deserves. I am determined to put this right.

“Our current social care services do provide invaluable support for many people and we recognise the contribution of our existing workforce and of the family carers without whom the system could not work.

“However, we know that there is growing demand for adult social care and that some aspects of the current system don’t work the way we would like them to. We need to address this and that’s why we need to change how social care is organised, funded, commissioned, delivered and led.”

The consultation takes place in the context of projected massive growth in demand for adult social care. Population projections for Northern Ireland between mid-2018 and mid-2043 estimate a 56.2 percent increase in people aged 65 and over and a 106.4 percent increase in those aged 85 and over.

Robin continued: “The Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of adult social care services.  Social care is not easy work even in ordinary times and these have been anything but ordinary times. Social care staff have shown real commitment to the people they support throughout the pandemic, responding to the situation with kindness, care and determination to reach the people who need them.

“I would encourage as many people as possible to respond to the public consultation and get involved in the discussion about these most vital of services.”

The 48 reform proposals include major new social care legislation introducing statutory duties including. These statutory duties cover new criteria for service eligibility for service users and family carers; duties to provide preventative and early intervention services; duties to provide equitable access to assessment of need for service users and family carers; and more.

“Alongside the public consultation, I have commissioned a full review of current charging arrangements,” the health minister added.

“This review will involve a comprehensive assessment of the advantages, disadvantages and impact of a variety of different charging approaches including the options of introducing a cap on costs faced by individual and families.

“The whole issue of charging is both complex and extremely sensitive. The ongoing pressures on public funding are well documented and there are many competing demands for investment in health and social care.

“My immediate priorities – as reflected in the proposals published today – are to improve the quality and the amount of social care services and to invest in the workforce.

“I am determined to push ahead on those fronts while in parallel examining all options on the future of charging. The current system of charging contributes £173.4 million a year to the adult social care system. Replacing that system with an alternative approach that is both fair and feasible would be one of the biggest challenges facing the next Executive and Assembly. The review I have commissioned will be central to any such work.”

Other important proposals for social care reform in Northern Ireland include: a more proactive commissioning approach, which will actively plan and shape service provision; the introduction of the offer of preventive/support visits for anyone aged over 75; and improving the pay, terms and conditions of the lowest paid in the social care workforce.

People can share their views on the consultation here.

The consultation will close on 18 May 2022.

Recently, the health minister announced an independent review of children’s social care services across Northern Ireland. This review will look at how current services are led and managed, and how they can be improved.

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