§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)
I am grateful for the opportunity, if only for a few minutes, to mention this important subject. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and my hon. Friend the Minister for making that possible.
The level of DSS benefits for elderly people in nursing homes is wholly inadequate to meet the charges of nursing homes in the south-east. A typical nursing home's charges have risen from £212 to £248, not because of greed on the part of the proprietors, many of whom operate practically on the verge of bankruptcy, but because of the 15 per cent. nurses' pay award and the 25 per cent. increase in interest rates. By comparison, benefit increases have amounted to only 2.5 per cent.
Not only does this create a considerable problem for those operating the homes, but it acts as a major disincentive to building new homes. It is estimated that we shall need to build two 40-bed homes or extensions every week to cope with the increse in numbers of elderly people. That will generate considerable pressure in future. Current levels of benefit amount to about £190 a week for the very dependent elderly, who get £155 as a result of being thus categorised, plus £34.90 for higher-level attendance allowance.
Thus, a home with a high proportion of income-supported patients is viable only if the owner is a registered nurse and prepared to provide cover that she would otherwise have to pay others to provide. It is viable only if capital costs are already completely paid, so no interest is being incurred; if no provision is being made for future capital expenditure; if maintenance and small dignities such as newspapers for patients are kept to a minimum; and if the staff are paid less than Whitley council rates. Moreover, because of the length of time involved in the period of assessment for benefit, homes often go without any pay for several weeks, thus incurring interest charges and problems of cash flow.
Florence Smith is 93 and until January she lived in a residential home. When her nursing needs became sufficiently acute for the home to decide that it could no longer cope, she moved to a local, popular and well-respected nursing home. When she did, DSS benefit plus higher attendance allowance equalled the charges levied by the home.
However, within a few weeks the charges had been raised to £210 a week, which is extremely modestone of the lowest fees in the south-east. Most homes in the area charge well over £300. Mrs. Smith's daughter is a pensioner herself, wholly dependent on the state pension, and although she is willing to provide the small necessities —clothes, toiletries and so on—she cannot regularly make up the shortfall, let alone the increased gap that will open up if the home is forced to increase its charges again.
When I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, she replied that it was never the Government's intention to cover the cost of residing at such homes, no matter how high. I contend that, the way things are, the Government are not covering the cost in the south-east at any rate, no matter how low.
Another of my constituents has a wife aged 77 suffering from Parkinson's disease. She is now in a nursing home after years of being cared for in her own home by her 593 husband. First, he had to wear down his capital to become eligible for benefit, and now he finds that the gap between the amount being charged to him and the sum that he can claim is so great that it is causing considerable problems, which are a source of worry to the wife as well as to the husband.
§ It being Eight o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [15 December.]