We're a part of the community, says Bray Home Care chairman
Reporter David Medcalf talked to Bray Home Care chairman Ciarán Roche about how the organisation has bounced back despite competition from low-wage rivals
Bray Home Care chairman Ciarán Roche hails from Drimnagh in Dublin, second eldest of a family of nine. Now 74 and a long-term resident of Newcastle, he was among the many of his generation who departed to England in search of employment. He worked in an office but realised being desk bound did not suit him, so he took up psychiatric and disability nursing in the UK. He took the opportunity while away to acquire the qualifications which leaving school at 15 had denied him.
As he finished nurse training he realised that the emphasis for many of the caring professions was shifting into the community and away from hospitals.
This was around 1970 and he had been working in a hospital at Dartford in Kent that had 2,400 disabled clients, all full-time residents. He took up social work and moved up the promotion ladder in Britain.
However, he and wife Hilda decided after the birth of their first child that it was time to come home to Ireland. They arrived back in 1977, with Ciarán having been taken on by the Eastern Health Board. He assumed that he would be working in Dublin city but instead was told he had been assigned to Wicklow. He found himself the only social worker in the county for a year.
As he had not trained in Ireland, he found that he knew nobody, either socially or professionally, in the area. It was a great learning experience: 'If you survived it, you could survive an awful lot of things.' He survived.
The brief was primarily child care, dealing with vulnerable youngsters and vulnerable families. He was responsible for children being taken into care, though this was the last resort, so he came up with practical alternative solutions to real problems.
Social workers now are much more tied up in rules and regulations, he reckons. A few years ago he went to a meeting and there were 39 social workers there from County Wicklow where, three decades earlier, he was the one and only. 'The difference is staggering,' he remarks.
His first spell in Wicklow was followed by transfer to a senior post in the 'inner city' at Ballymun where he was fated to work for ten years. However, in 1978, forty years ago, shortly before the move to Ballymun, he helped to establish Bray Home Care.
One day Ciarán was asked to visit a lady in Bray with three children under the age of five who had injured her back. She was lying prone in the house, only able to move her arms. She was a superb parent but, as she came from another county, she did not have much support from family or friends.
Her plight distressed Ciarán and she came to mind when a woman walked into his office a few days later. The caller, Jan Morris, had five children of her own, all grown up. She said she had skills and experience, so she wanted to know how she could be of service.
He saw the potential and approached the programme manager in the health board. He broached the notion of a home help service and within a week, a budget had been allocated. Jan was asked to set up and manage the service, which was initiated to assist this one family affected by the mother's back injury. However, talking to the public health nurses, it became clear that elderly people also required support. Before long, most of the clients were vulnerable elderly
'We were just going in doing a bit of cooking and a bit of shopping - it was very basic - making life a little bit easier and preventing people going into hospital.'
Though he was soon working in Dublin, Ciarán remained on the committee and he has been ever present since. In the 1990s as he took up a post as senior social worker in County Wicklow he became chairman. He and Hilda moved to reside in Newcastle 22 years ago, having previously lived in Dalkey. At one stage before the turn of the millennium, there were at least 130 paid carers on the books of Bray Home Care, going into around 350 homes each week.
Gráinne McLoughlin is the current manager who took over two years ago at the reins of a slimmed down operation. It is part of a chain of such organisations, styled the AWD Consortium. Carers were paid from day one, though Ciaran's committee work has always been voluntary.
The degree of care offered to clients has risen and staff are now expected to be more professional, trained for the job.
In 2014 Bray Home Care was called to a meeting with the HSE.
'They informed us that a new model of care was being brought in. Government policy was to open up the work to competition and private companies were coming into the market.' They were told that they would have to tender for a business that was being privatised.
The problem was that over the 35 years or so they had been in operation, rates of pay for care staff had been negotiated with trades unions. These rates were enshrined in employment contracts and (ironically as it turned out) approved by the HSE.
New companies often paying much lower rates were in a much better position to compete in the tender process as they entered the market. The disparity of wages in open competition left Bray Home Care - and the other long established groups - vulnerable.
The HSE assured them that the situation was understood and appreciated - and that it would be sorted out.
In order to tender, they had to form the alliance, a loose consortium of six, for the provision of services to south Dublin and Co. Wicklow. In 2018 they duly submitted their tender only to be told that they had not been approved to be a provider.
They were excluded purely on cost grounds - nothing to do with track record or proven ability to provide the service. Fifteen organisations had been approved but there was no sign of AWD on the list - they had finished 19th, outside the chosen elite top 15.
'We were effectively out of business. It was horrific, traumatic, none of us expected it. I had a meeting with 53 staff to give them their notice and tell them we were closing our doors within a fortnight. It was devastating for me personally after forty years. Bray Home Care is part of the fabric of Bray. It looked as though we were gone.'
Hard-hitting negotiations followed behind the scenes and ultimately the HSE agreed in December to let the consortium back on to the list of approved suppliers which is presented to families applying for home help support. They are back in the game, taking on private companies which generally pay staff way less than the organisations in the consortium - he believes sometimes €3 to €5 less per hour.
He feels that an appropriate wage should be written into the tendering process. He also warns that staff on low wages are more likely to move on quickly, disrupting the continuity of service to the old people. The Health Service Executive funds Bray Home Care practically one hundred per cent to provide a free service and turnover at the moment is running at around €800,000 a year.
Looking at the list of 'approved providers' you have to go to the very bottom line on the list to find Bray Home Care, hidden under the title ADW Consortium. There it is, presented without address or phone number in the same pair of brackets as Arklow Home Help, Dun Laoghaire Home Help, Wicklow Community Services, Rehabcare and Greystones Home Help Services. You can almost hear Ciarán Roche grinding his teeth in frustration as he looks at the sheet of paper.
'If you as a family in Bray are presented with that sheet, we are at a serious disadvantage. We actually don't have a hope.'
Until this difficulty is put right, Bray Home Care feels it has no alternative but to go on a publicity offensive - hence this newspaper interview. 'It is going to be a much harder slog, obviously. We are open for business, located on the Vevay Road. We have to market ourselves much better.'
A similar message is going out from colleagues in Arklow, Wicklow and Greystones. It is a very personal issue to the chairman, who will not be letting this issue go any time soon as he feels that the HSE has not provided a level playing field.
'We have been 40 years in Bray and it is primarily Bray people we employ. We are part and parcel of the fabric of the community. We mind the home helps and the home helps mind their clients. We have brought the service into the 21st century but no matter how much you modernise, the essence is the one-to-one face contact between clients and carers.
'I am proud of the service we provide,' he says as he calls for what he a more level playing field. 'We need to get the word out there that we are open for business.'