Skip to main content

Community Alarm Services: Social Housing

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social housing community alarm services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have secured a debate on this important issue. I sincerely hope, despite the extremely difficult and tragic circumstances that I will outline, that we will be able to reach a positive outcome and improve the safety of the many people across the country who rely on community alarm services.

At 18.35 on 5 November 2015, Ronald Volante, father of my constituent Rita Cuthell, triggered the community alarm service in his property. It was operated by the social housing provider, Magenta Living. He was in a considerable amount of distress and could only manage to cry out the word “help” to the individual receiving the call. Two hours later, an ambulance finally arrived at Mr Volante’s house and the paramedics who attended found that he had sadly died. He was found next to a note addressed to his daughters, which said, “I love you.” It is difficult to appreciate fully the suffering that Mr Volante experienced during those hours, or the pain and anguish that those closest to him have suffered since as the full extent of the circumstances of his death have become known.

What has become clear is that a number of opportunities that could have saved Mr Volante’s life were missed. Nothing that we can say in this debate today can change that fact. What we can do is seek assurances that nobody else will have to go through such an appalling experience ever again. Mr Volante was a resident at the Maritime Park social housing complex, which is owned by the Regenda Group housing association. During daytime hours, a warden was present at the facility. Out of hours, residents relied solely on a community alarm service provided by the Magenta Living housing association. Mr Volante was 74 years old and suffered from coronary artery disease and thrombosis. He had previously suffered a myocardial infarction that required heart surgery.

After Mr Volante triggered the alarm, his call was answered by an operator within six seconds. The operator’s notes state that they could not ascertain what Mr Volante was requesting, other than help. After attempting without success to call both of Mr Volante’s daughters, the operator called for an ambulance at 18.38. I have seen a transcript of the conversation with the North West Ambulance Service, which lasted for just over six minutes. During the call, the operator speculated as to whether Mr Volante might be having some kind of speech problem, as all they could hear was the call for help. The operator was unable to provide a great deal of detail about Mr Volante’s condition, as they were communicating with him remotely from a call centre and had no visual contact. At no point during the conversation did the operator inform the North West Ambulance Service of Mr Volante’s heart condition, despite that information being available. Although the ambulance service knew that the caller was not actually with Mr Volante and was calling from a lifeline service, it made no further enquiries about his medical history.

Following the call to the emergency services, the operator confirmed to Mr Volante that they had called an ambulance. At that stage, they received no response from Mr Volante. Despite that, they closed down the community alarm service at that time, 18.46. The call to Mr Volante lasted a total of 10 minutes and 41 seconds. No further efforts were made to contact Mr Volante’s family at that stage.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which affects his constituent, and my constituent, who unfortunately died in this incident. Is one of the many lessons that we might draw from this that the service works all right if a person is not in the process of dying? However, once someone is in the process of dying, there seem to be some real faults. One is about how an operator follows up when they do not hear any more from someone after they call for help. That is one area that should be attended to.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to the issue he raises later in my contribution.

Almost an hour and a half later, at 20.07, the North West Ambulance Service, having still not arrived, contacted the community alarm service to advise that it had been receiving a large number of emergency calls—it was bonfire night—and asked whether the ambulance for Mr Volante was still required. The operator advised that they were not sure, as they had had no further contact with Mr Volante. Ambulance control advised that it would attend as soon as it could and asked the operator to provide an update to Mr Volante. A second operator made a call to update Mr Volante at 20.11, but no response was received. At this stage, a second operator telephoned Mr Volante’s daughter, Mrs Cuthell. She expressed concern that nobody had attended the flat in an hour and a half. At 20.30, just under two hours after the initial call to the alarm service by Mr Volante, an ambulance finally arrived at his address. At 20.37, the alarm service received a call from the ambulance service, which confirmed that Mr Volante had sadly been found deceased.

As I said when I began my remarks, a number of opportunities were missed throughout the two hours—opportunities that could have led to Mr Volante’s life being saved. The inquest was opened on 28 January 2016. The coroner, Mr Rebello, determined that Mr Volante died of natural causes, because there was no certainty that an earlier intervention would have saved his life. However, Mr Rebello also issued a report under regulation 28—also known as a report to prevent future deaths—because he believes, as do I, that action should be taken to prevent future deaths in similar circumstances.

I am therefore now requesting the assistance of the Minister and his colleagues to ensure that action is taken, not only by Magenta Living but by every provider of community alarm services. I also believe there are messages for ambulance service providers across the country, and I hope that the Minister will be able to take them on board. The first serious issue was the fact that a 999 call on behalf of a 74-year-old gentleman with a serious heart condition was categorised as a green 2 call. While there is a national standard that an ambulance will be provided in response to the most urgent telephone calls—also known as red 1 and red 2 calls—within eight minutes, there are no national standards for a response to a less urgent green 2 call. In those cases, the North West Ambulance Service sends an ambulance as soon as is practical, which sadly on a busy night like 5 November can be hours rather than minutes.

In her evidence to the coroner, Irene Weldon, the acting manager for the emergency operations centre covering Cheshire and Merseyside, confirmed that it was very likely that the call would have been treated with a higher level of priority—red 1 or red 2—if the call handler had been made aware of Mr Volante’s history of heart disease and thrombosis. When I put that to Magenta Living and asked why Mr Volante’s medical conditions were not disclosed to the ambulance service during the call, I was provided with the following response:

“Proactively providing medical history to the ambulance service at the point of contact by call handlers does not form part of the procedure accredited by the TSA.”

TSA is the Telecare Services Association. It is the industry body for community alarm services. It sets national standards for providers to adhere to and provides a framework that sets out how its members should respond to calls. Clearly it is not acceptable that the framework does not require vital medical information to be provided to ambulance services when a 999 call is made by an alarm service operator. The coroner called for action to be taken in that respect in his report to prevent future deaths, and I echo that call for action.

The second issue is that while Mr Volante was able to vocalise his request for help when he contacted the community alarm service, by the time the operator made contact to confirm that an ambulance had been called just a few minutes later, he was no longer responsive. That important change in circumstances was not reported to the ambulance service. Again, that could have led to the call being given higher priority. When I asked Magenta Living about that, it said:

“Historically, a change of circumstances would not result in a call handler updating the emergency services. This practice was adopted due to the fact that keeping the line open could potentially impact upon the monitoring of the centre’s ability to respond to further activations from residents at the same scheme.”

It is completely unacceptable that community alarm providers do not routinely inform the emergency services of a deterioration in the condition of a caller. If the ambulance service had been informed of the possibility that Mr Volante was no longer breathing, it is very likely that the priority of the call would have been upgraded. That was another concern raised by the coroner.

As I said previously, we cannot possibly say with certainty whether earlier intervention in this case would have saved Mr Volante’s life, but we know that in all urgent cases of this nature, every minute matters, so I can say with absolute certainty that if the medical condition of callers, or any deterioration in their circumstances, is not being reported to ambulance services as a matter of course, the lives of the 1.7 million people who use community alarm services are being put at risk. When he sums up, will the Minister indicate whether he agrees with me that the national framework set out by the TSA should be urgently updated to ensure that those issues are addressed? I also ask him to join with me in asking all social housing community alarm service providers to ensure that their local processes reflect the recommendations set out by the coroner in Mr Volante’s case.

Since her father’s death, Mrs Cuthell has been tireless in pursuing those issues, so that she can feel that justice has been done for her father. I know that her biggest wish is that nobody will ever have to go through such a terrible experience again. It is to her absolute credit that throughout the trauma of her father’s death and the incredibly difficult experience of the inquest she has maintained a great focus on making sure that lessons are learned and improvements are made. She has shown calm dignity and incredible determination to bring about change, and I am pleased to say that that is beginning to bear fruit. We have held numerous meetings with the TSA and the North West Ambulance Service. There has been progress, albeit at a much slower pace than we would have liked.

The TSA has arranged meetings with the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives and is working with it and its members to develop protocols for its quality standards framework, which it hopes will be fully implemented by June. That will mean that when a call of this nature is made in future to the service providers, the call handler will provide reassurance to the caller until the responder is actually present. It also plans to have clear procedures in place to communicate with the responders and, crucially, plans to escalate the matter where it becomes clear that a responder is not available. A national emergency algorithm is also being developed that will enable all necessary information to be passed to the ambulance services when a call is made, to enable the ambulance service to prioritise such calls more accurately.

The right approach is being taken by the TSA to ensure that the tragic situation is not repeated, but the TSA does not represent every provider in the sector. Membership of that organisation is voluntary, and that is where we need assistance from the Minister. We would like to see all telecare services adopting the same approach and adhering to the same standards that the TSA is developing. Is the Minister prepared to look at making that a requirement across the board?

I want to touch on some concerns about ambulance services. I understand that the primary issue in this case was the fact that the call had been awarded a lower priority because important facts were not reported to the ambulance service. It is nevertheless unacceptable that it took almost two hours for that service to respond.

Although much of the recent media focus has been on when people get to hospital, ambulance services have suffered the most worrying deterioration in recent years. There is a national standard that says that red 1 and red 2 calls should be attended within eight minutes; the reality is that that target is not met in about a third of cases, and has not been met for some time. The most recent figures show that just 68.5% of red 1 cases—where a patient has suffered a cardiac arrest or stopped breathing—are responded to in eight minutes. In other life-threatening emergencies in the red 2 category, just 62% of calls received a response within eight minutes. Lives are being lost and patients are being put at risk because funding to the NHS has not kept up with demand. I know that the Minister cannot tell us what the Chancellor has planned for his Budget next month, but I call on the Government to deliver the rescue package that our NHS so desperately needs.

Whatever happens with funding, the other steps I have outlined today do not come with a price tag and can be implemented across the board. We know that will not bring back Mr Volante, but it would allow us to look his family in the eye and say that lessons have been learned and the mistakes that led to his death will not happen again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on leading the charge on this debate, which raises a number of serious issues. I thank him for the work he has done so far with the family and the progress that has been made as a consequence of that work. I will come on to talk more about that in the next few minutes.

This short debate raises a number of important questions. It is clear that we need to learn lessons. In preparing for the debate, it struck me that this industry is a growth area in our country. More and more people are in sheltered accommodation for longer and are reliant on call handling services provided by a variety of contractors. More and more people are therefore susceptible to this sort of tragedy, which is probably a consequence of a mixture of individual error and the procedures and processes not being in place to pick that up.

Before I respond in more detail, I add my condolences to the two daughters and the family of Mr Volante for what happened on 5 November 2015. I reiterate that the Government are as keen as they are that we get the lessons learned from this situation right.

I will briefly set out the issues as I see them on what happened that evening. The company Magenta was operating an outsourced service called Support Link to the sheltered housing association. It received a call from Mr Volante. All that was heard in that call was the word “help”. As per the procedure, the company tried to reach Mr Volante’s daughters, who were the next contact in the process it had. It was unable to do that, and then called an ambulance.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, although it was known to the call operators that Mr Volante had a heart condition, at that time it was not made clear to the ambulance service. As a consequence, although not necessarily entirely as a consequence of that—we will come back to that; the hon. Gentleman made some comments about how the ambulance service reacted—the call was given a lower priority than it otherwise would have been. The consequence of that was that the standard for the call was 30 minutes, and as we have heard, it took nearly two hours on 5 November, the reason given being that it was Guy Fawkes’ night.

When Magenta was informed that the ambulance was going to take longer than expected, it called back and was unable to get a reply from Mr Volante. It did not take any further action at that time, such as asking the ambulance service to expedite or convert the call to a higher priority. When the ambulance finally arrived, as we have heard, Mr Volante was found to be deceased. The coroner accepted that had procedures been carried out effectively and properly the outcome may well have been the same, but we do not know that. He made a number of recommendations at the inquest, including a regulation 28 report, which is what we are here to discuss, and made other, wider points.

The coroner made a number of observations specific to this case and a number of wider observations, and we have heard about the work that has been done on some of those points. His specific observations on the case included the point that Magenta had access to the medical records, and the ambulance service should have been made aware that Mr Volante had heart disease. The ambulance service has said that had it known that, it would have been likely to have given the call a higher priority and got an ambulance there much more quickly.

Secondly, and equally importantly, when Magenta called Mr Volante back and there was no response, which implied some kind of deterioration in his condition, it did not take any action. It did not inform the ambulance service that the call should potentially be upgraded. In two further dialogues with the ambulance service, it did not do anything proactive to expedite the situation.

Finally, the coroner suggested that Magenta’s procedures be updated and that training and supervision be updated to reflect that. My understanding is that Magenta has put the required changes in place quickly and effectively, which I believe has been accepted by everyone involved—but of course that is not the whole issue.

There are four wider issues. First, Magenta is accredited by an organisation called the TSA. It is clearly important that the measures that Magenta has implemented are implemented equally by all other members of the TSA. Organisations that declare themselves to be accredited, which brings some status in terms of procurement and all that goes with it, must put in place exactly the same procedural changes as Magenta. I will come on to talk about that.

The second issue is that that applies only to organisations that are accredited or are part of the TSA, but a number of call handling organisations are not in that category. We think, although we do not know for certain, that about 10% of call handling organisations are not accredited, which clearly leads to a loophole in making this process work.

The third issue—the hon. Gentleman talked about this—is whether the ambulance service could have done more. It is not absolutely obvious to me why the initial call was given a green coding. I accept Magenta’s story that had it been informed of the heart condition the call would not have been given that code. I have not seen the conversation, but it still does not seem right that a call for help should have resulted in a low-priority ambulance being called. Another issue is that, after the call was given a lower priority, the ambulance took nearly two hours, against a standard of 30 minutes. I will come back to what the lessons learned are.

The fourth issue to learn lessons on is the overall regulatory environment. GPs, hospitals, care homes and domiciliary care providers are regulated by the Care Quality Commission. That regulatory system is, on the whole, effective. It is not 100% effective, but it is certainly better than nothing. The interesting point, which the hon. Gentleman did not raise explicitly but is part of the learning, is that sheltered accommodation is not regulated in the same way. The reason is that, under the Health and Social Care Act 2008, which set up the system of regulation, sheltered accommodation is not considered to provide personal care and is therefore outside the regulatory environment.

That also applies to call handling organisations. We have noted that they are not regulated. I had a discussion this morning with the CQC, which is aware that they are outside the regulatory system, and we are going to monitor the issue and think about taking it forward. I do not want to be more explicit than that, and the hon. Gentleman did not raise the issue explicitly. I learned that the status of a call handling organisation is similar to that of a friend phoning 999 when an issue has arisen. There are issues there that we can learn from and think about. The very least that needs to be understood is that, when something is not regulated, people need to be clear about what that means, and we should not act under the perception that regulation exists.

We heard from the hon. Gentleman about the work that he and Mrs Cuthell have done with the Telecare Services Association. Broadly speaking, the TSA operates a framework of best practice for such conversations. The framework is audited, and I believe that the TSA has teeth in its accreditation process. Through the work of the hon. Gentleman and Mrs Cuthell, it has been made clear that the framework will be updated. The next version is to be released in the summer—in June or July—and it will be audited. I can say no more about it than that, other than that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that progress has been slow. After this debate, we will write to the chief executive of the TSA to say that the Government also regard it as very important that the framework is updated, and that we expect that to happen. The hon. Gentleman and I should perhaps meet at the back end of the summer to ensure that everybody is happy that action has taken place appropriately and that every other supplier has put in place the same level of protection as Magenta.

On the issue of non-TSA suppliers, which is a loophole, I have explained the regulatory environment. The commitment I make about that 10% or 20% of the market—the fact that we know so little about it is significant—is that we will find out which the major organisations in that category are and write to them to put to them the lessons that Magenta has learned from this case. We will say that we expect them to understand the lessons and take similar action. There is a point to be made about how such services are procured by clinical commissioning groups and local authorities. Those organisations need to understand—I think this is the case at the moment—that when someone procures call handling services of this type, there are benefits to ensuring that the organisations they buy from are accredited by the TSA. That has some value, and commissioners should be on guard in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about the performance of the ambulance service on that evening. I agree that the time taken for the ambulance to get there was completely unacceptable—I think the ambulance service agrees with that, albeit that it is mitigated by the fact that it was 5 November. The hon. Gentleman made a number of wider points about funding, which he cannot expect me to answer in this debate. We will write to the chief executive of the North West Ambulance Service to make the point that this incident was unsatisfactory and ask him to be absolutely certain that the initial classification as low-priority was correct following the dialogue between his call handler and the Magenta call handler. It is not absolutely clear to me, given the facts as I understand them and as the hon. Gentleman set them out today, that that was the case. I make that commitment.

At the start of the debate, the hon. Gentleman said that Mrs Cuthell’s major motivation is to ensure that what happened to her family never happens again. I cannot make a commitment that it will never happen again, but I can say that the story we have heard is completely unsatisfactory. The Government understand the failures that occurred and will put in place what is needed to try to ensure that it does not happen again. The hon. Gentleman made the point that 1.7 million people are covered by such call handling systems. That number will only increase as our population ages and as a higher proportion of people are in sheltered accommodation or are covered by call handling organisations while living at home.

I reiterate my commitment to meet the hon. Gentleman at the back end of the summer to ensure that these various things have been taken on board, that these actions, many of which he has led, have taken place, and that we are happy that what can be done has been done.

Question put and agreed to.