I have deep concerns about the overall structure of what the Minister, Deputy Harney, has proposed to become operational from 1 January 2008. I refer the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to Article 45.4.1° of the Constitution which states: "The State pledges itself to safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged." That is very clear. The proposed amendment does not subscribe to the duty of looking after the weaker sections of the community. In effect, the infirm and the aged have been singled out as a special group and, just because they are ill, it is planned to take 80% of their income and ultimately sequester 50% of their property. Foreign invaders did not get away with this, let alone an Irish Government. It is unclear how this can constitute looking after the economic interests of those people who have worked hard over the years. As far as they are concerned, they have made their contribution and are entitled to nursing home care.
The reason we have reached this impasse is that the balance between public and private long-stay beds has changed radically. In the 1960s, four out of five beds were in the public sector, now approximately 52% of beds are in the private sector. That is the malaise that has set in. I am not sure the Minister or her colleagues ever looked at the reports that are available. They should not tell us there is a crisis because, despite significant changes in the population, the percentage of people in need of full-time care is remarkably stable. In the 1960s and 1970s when we did not have a shilling, when Deputy Stagg's brother and others were sending home money from England and elsewhere to keep us going, about 5% of the population were aged over 65 and required long-term care but today that sector constitutes only 4.6% of the population and money is coming out of our ears. That argument is fallacious. It is predicated upon a rush to the ostensible privatisation by stealth of the health care system.
The Minister and her colleagues should look at Professor Eamon O'Shea's report — it is not ours — and the National Economic and Social Forum's action plan to reform care of the elderly. We have a plethora of analysis and information. This proposal does not relate to 250,000 people or even to 50,000 people, we are talking about 20,000 people. In 2011 the numbers will rise to 22,000 people. This is not a case of a genie escaping from a bottle and exploding. By 2050 both Mercer and the NESF predicted Ireland will have fewer over 65s as a percentage of population than the European average. The most recent CSO statistics show our fertility rate is the highest in Europe so we will have more young people coming on-stream to pay taxes and ensure that when I get old I will have a bed.
Reference to long-term care is a misnomer. According to the O'Shea report, 77% of those requiring such care are only in nursing homes for three months or less. The Department's statistics show that of those discharged from nursing homes in a given year, 20% die but 63% are discharged back into the community. Therefore, very few people stay for years in nursing home care. The average length of stay in a nursing home is three years yet the Government decides to plunder and rob people. The intention is to make people pay for what is, essentially, the average period spent by elderly people in nursing homes. One could talk about daylight robbery. This time it is our own vulnerable people who are being done. It is an absolute disgrace to perpetrate such an act on anybody. It is a shame on any Government for coming forward with such a proposal.
The angst and annoyance out there has to be seen to be believed. This is a crisis. The response of the State to the future burden of providing adequate residential care for older people is an example of ageism at its worst. The Minister of State should read the National Economic and Social Forum's report with great care, especially the section on rooting out ageism in society. Older people remain quite healthy and independent and are able to enjoy life to the last yet the Government is picking on them. This is the worst form of ageism. As Deputy Stagg said, people's homes are not used in calculating means tests for so many entitlements, rightly so, yet people who have given their all and worked hard to build the State into what it is are being penalised. It is a shame on the Government. Many people are out there waiting in the grass to give their verdict on this issue.