HC Deb 17 June 1963 vol 679 cc188-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ian Fraser.]

10.46 p.m.

Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

It has been my singular fortune today to make two speeches, one on the subject of the Keeler case and this one upon the old-age pensioners of Berwick-upon-Tweed. I once heard a story about an Italian who once by mistake addressed a congress of science delegates for 20 minutes on the importance of sport, but I think that the difference in this case is much greater than that and that there cannot possibly be any confusion of speeches on this issue.

I want briefly to quote to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health from Local Authority Building Note 2 published by the Ministry of Health in July, 1962, and to do this in relevance to the building of the new old people's home at Tweed mouth in Northumberland. The Note reads: B. Size of Homes A home should not be too large. Although this Note deals with homes for 30 to 60 places, a home of 60 places should be considered as the upper limit for size and suitable only for heavily built-up areas; smaller homes, between 30 and 50 places, are generally preferable, especially in rural areas. As a matter of fact, this is basically a rural area and could not be described as a built-up one, and it is planned that the new home there shall be built for 60 people. I am not sure that this is really the right sized home, and there is an argument which I shall present to my hon. Friend later against the building at the present time.

The Note goes on: C. Sites Sites should be easy of approach with the normal amenities of town or village life such as shops, churches, places of entertainment and public transport, near at hand. The home should be part of the community and integrated so far as possible with the daily life of the district. Isolated sites or too great a concentration of provision for the elderly are both to be avoided since it is important to preserve links with family and friends. I cannot help thinking that when those responsible for choosing the site made their choice they neglected section C of the Note, for it is right outside the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The site is extremely exposed, and through a bridge, is exposed to all the elements, very windswept, and above all, it takes the people right out of the community in which many of them have lived all their lives. There are no shopping centres within immediate walking distance, and it is almost exactly contrary to the intention, so it seems to me, laid down by the Minister in his Note.

There is one other thing I do not like about this new home. It is going to be built almost opposite a slaughterhouse and with a canning yard next to the slaughterhouse. One of those who advocated the building of this home, when asked by a newspaper man whether he did not think it would be singularly depressing for old people to look out of their windows and see a slaughterhouse, replied, "Not a bit", adding that they would have a lovely silver roof to look upon.

This seems to me to put sense overboard in order to sustain an argument. One might as well say that it will be nice for old people to be comforted by the noise of animals bellowing before they are killed or by the smell of decaying flesh. I can think of nothing more depressing for old people than to overlook a slaughterhouse with its daily intake of animals which will never come out alive again.

It would be a great pity at present to build a home which is too big for the area. It would be a great pity to isolate the old people outside the community in which they have lived their lives and in circumstances in which their attention cannot but be drawn to a slaughterhouse. I ask my hon. Friend, before granting any loans towards the construction of this home, to take into consideration the possibility either of maintaining the present home or of building a more modest home somewhere else in the area.

10.57 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Bernard Braine)

The care of the elderly is an important branch of our social services and therefore I very much welcome my noble Friend's decision to bring before this House a proposal which affects the future care of old people in Berwick- upon-Tweed, a proposal which he believes to be mistaken.

I know that he has been concerned over a long period about the care of his elderly constituents, and I can therefore all the more understand his anxiety about the particular proposal he has described. But there are, however, limitations to what my right hon. Friend can do in a matter of this kind.

It may be helpful if I explain the nature of my right hon. Friend's responsibility in the provision of residential care for the elderly, and to whom my noble Friend must look if he seeks to have this proposal modified. Under Section 21 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, local welfare authorities—that is to say, county councils and county borough councils—have a duty to provide residential accommodation for persons who, by reason of age or infirmity, are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them.

In discharging this responsibility, the local welfare authorities must have regard to the welfare of all those for whom the accommodation is provided, and their consideration of the broad question of the welfare of the home's future residents must necessarily include the important matter of siting.

In other words, this is a responsibility of the local welfare authorities. A local welfare authority discharges its duties under Section 21 in accordance with a scheme which it has prepared and which has been approved by the Minister. Such schemes are prepared in general terms in accordance with guidance given by my Department, which does not extend to details about individual homes. Local welfare authorities are advised each year of the schemes for which my Department is prepared to recommend loan sanction during the year. My Department's decisions in this connection reflect, of course, the amount of capital investment available each year.

When the Northumberland City Council first proposed to erect this home, as far back as 1951, as my noble Friend will recollect, capital and building materials were both in short supply, and the scheme could not then be included in the investment programme. Since then, I am very happy to say, the position has changed out of all recognition and there is now enough capital available for all welfare building schemes which authorities are able to bring forward to the tender stage at their current rate of planning. The Northumberland County Council's revived proposal to provide a home at Tweed mouth was therefore accepted in 1962 for inclusion in the capital programme.

When a local authority wishes to meet the cost of a scheme by raising a loan from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—which is the course usually followed—a recommendation of loan sanction from my Department is necessary. This is, I am afraid, virtually the only control exercised by the Ministry of Health over the authorities' provision of old people's homes, for though my Department may advise an authority about siting and planning, my right hon. Friend could not consider himself justified in withholding a recommendation for loan sanction from the responsible local authority unless a serious matter of policy was involved.

That brings me to the question which my noble Friend has raised tonight—the advice contained in my Department's Building Notes. General advice was given quite recently in a Building Note which my noble Friend quoted. It said: Sites should be easy of approach with the normal amenities of town or village life, such as shops, churches, places of entertainment and public transport, near at hand. The home should be part of the community and integrated so far as possible with the daily life of the district. Isolated sites—". and here I entirely agree with my noble Friend about this important matter of sites— or too great a concentration of provision of the elderly— too many people in one place— are both to be avoided since it is important to preserve links with families and friends. Such general advice may be supplemented, both regionally and centrally, if required, and indeed the principles expressed in the words I have just quoted from the Building Notes have been widely understood in welfare circles for some years.

In recent months, I have had the privilege of travelling up and down the country visiting a number of new old people's homes. All of those that I have seen have seemed to be in many ways delightful places, combining privacy and comfort with the requisite degree of oversight and care. My observations have confirmed me in the belief that old people are happiest when close to the normal bustle of human activity and when they can step outside the door for a short walk to the shops, or to church, or can watch the changing scene from their window.

My noble Friend made certain criticisms of the proposed new home at Tweed mouth and asked about the guidance we give in our Building Note. He mentioned the subject of noise. I should point out that in the Note points made on the subject of noise refer to internal noise. There is nothing in the Building Note relating to noise or other activities outside. But, having regard to what I have said on the subject of siting, I must say that the siting of an old people's home near a slaughterhouse and tannery is a matter which would cause me to have very serious second thoughts. It certainly seems unfortunate, to say the least, that an old people's home should be sited in these circumstances at Tweedmouth.

My noble Friend asked about the size of the proposed home. I understand that it is to be in the region of 60 beds. This is the upper limit of the numbers which we suggest. I must say, frankly, that we could not ask a local authority to revise its plans on that account alone. Nevertheless, we prefer to see smaller homes of about, on average, 40 to 45, and this is the kind of home which increasingly is finding favour with progressive local authorities up and down the country.

We must, however, consider the problem from the point of view of the Northumberland County Council. It is the responsible welfare authority. It has decided—and it is not for me to question its decision—that the existing old persons' home in Berwick, "Green-haven", which is a former public assistance institution, is unsuitable for the care of the elderly and, secondly, that rebuilding is quite impracticable on the existing site.

I am bound to say that clear advice has been given to local welfare authorities by my Department about former public assistance institutions. There are at present about 34,000 elderly people still accommodated in such former institutions, and local authorities plan to reduce their numbers by 20,000 by 1972. It is, however, our view that, given the conditions in which the elderly have to be cared for in these establishments, the aim should be to replace them all within the next 10 years, with the exception of such few as can be made to give a service fully on a level with good contemporary standards.

The Northumberland County Council has a duty to make proper provision for the old and infirm in its area, and it has rightly decided that "Greenhaven" must be replaced. I am advised that the County Council admits that the Tweed-mouth site has disadvantages, but the Council points out that its decision to build on this site was taken only after extensive investigations and inquiries about other sites had proved fruitless and that "Greenhaven" could not be rebuilt on its existing site because it would not be possible to provide alternative accommodation in the meantime for the existing 69 residents. The Council has therefore concluded that if a new home is to be provided in the borough in the foreseeable future it will have to be built at Tweedmouth.

I understand that the County Welfare Committee considers that the Council could not be said to be satisfactorily discharging its duty to make proper provision for the elderly if it continued indefinitely to accommodate in premises which are clearly unsuitable nearly 70 old people who could be housed instead in a modern, comfortable home which, though less convenient in some respects, would nevertheless be reasonably accessible to the activities and amenities of the town. I understand that at its next meeting on 1st August the County Council will consider the Welfare Committee's recommendation that it should reaffirm its decision to build the new home at Tweedmouth. There will, therefore, be a further opportunity for this matter to be considered.

I entirely endorse the County Council's view that a new home is urgently needed and that the former institution must be replaced as soon as possible. In my right hon. Friend's view the new site is certainly not ideal, but it was chosen by the responsible local authority after full consideration as the best available. Although my Department has had misgivings about the selected site, this is essentially a local matter which should be settled by the responsible organ of local government, and there is no point of principle involved which would justify my Department in going back on the approval which it gave some years ago.

Yet, having said all this, I fully appreciate my noble Friend's concern, and I therefore hope, and indeed expect, that due attention will be paid by the local authority to the representations which he and the townsfolk of Berwick have been making on this subject.

I should like him to know, as members of the County Council themselves already know, that if the Council—and it is a matter for the Council—should decide on 1st August to put forward an alternative proposal, then my right hon. Friend will very gladly and speedily consider it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.