HC Deb 16 January 1996 vol 269 cc528-30
5. Mr. Jim Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met the Association of District Councils to discuss the provision of care for elderly people. [7495]

13. Mr. Olner

To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met the Association of District Councils to discuss community care. [7504]

Mr. Bowis

The Association of County Councils is representing the Association of District Councils on social care matters where district authorities are becoming unitary authorities. We meet it and other local authority associations regularly to discuss community care issues. I last met them on 23 October 1995.

Mr. Marshall

Did those organisations convey to the Minister the concern that many elderly people feel about the cost of long-term care? What will the Government do to reduce the number of people—now about 40,000—who are forced to sell their homes each year? What additional measures do the Government intend to introduce to make the system more equitable and to ensure that that figure is reduced dramatically this year?

Mr. Bowis

The basis of charging policy is exactly the same as it was when it was introduced by the Labour Government in 1948. We have listened to local authority associations and others and we have sought to ease the cost of people's accommodation. That is why we came forward with the proposals on occupational pensions, and it is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced decisions in the Budget on capital disregard and consultation about the partnership concept. We are looking for ways to encourage and enable people to prepare for their future care needs.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, our planning is rather different from that of the Labour party. The hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) delivered the verdict on that in his Fabian Society address, in which he said that Labour's health policy leaves many important questions unanswered". He referred to Labour's policy on the long-term care of the elderly as "fudging the issue".

Mr. Olner

Will the Minister confirm that the £16,000 disregard is nothing but a cruel hoax on elderly people, whose homes, on average, are worth about £67,000, as many of them will still lose their homes? Will the Minister say something about the inconsistency of eligibility as between local areas which makes care for the elderly a lottery in many parts of the country?

Mr. Bowis

The question of charging comparisons in different areas does not apply because there is a standard national system of charging. Although there are some areas of discretion for local authorities, they are perfectly open and it is for the elected members of those authorities to decide whether they are fair.

The change has been widely welcomed by organisations that represent the elderly and carers. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would notice not only the rise in the upper limit from £8,000 to £16,000, but the rise in the lower limit from £3,000 to £10,000. That has a significant impact on people who, in the past, were worried about matters such as funeral expenses. That burden has been lifted from their shoulders, which is why the change has been widely welcomed.

Mr. Sims

Does my hon. Friend agree that many local authorities, including mine, have worked very hard to implement community care both in the spirit and in the letter and that it is generally working well? Does he accept also that there is evidence that some authorities do not meet the standard required? Will he confirm that his Department is not only carefully monitoring the implementation of community care but taking steps to elevate those laggard authorities to the standards and the quality of the best?

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend is right on both counts. First, there has been a very good start in implementing community care around the country. We always said that it would take a decade to implement it fully. Secondly, he is correct to say that, for a variety of reasons, some authorities are less than good. I fear that that is sometimes due to incompetence and that it is sometimes due to ideological hostility to the use of the independent sector, for example. That fact is borne out by the reports of the independent Audit Commission, not just by my Department's monitoring. The social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission do a great deal of monitoring and we try to follow that up with good practice guidance and by pursuing those authorities that are falling behind.

Mr. Whittingdale

Will my hon. Friend consider what action can be taken against Labour and Liberal-controlled authorities that waste thousands of pounds by insisting on placing elderly people in local authority-run homes rather than those operated by the private sector? Is he aware that, in Essex, that ideological and blinkered policy is wasting £90,000 every week?

Mr. Bowis

I am aware of problems in Essex. As my hon. Friend knows, it is an area that the social services inspectorate is examining. I am aware also that authorities waste money by failing to use the most cost-effective placements. There are two remedies to that: first, there is statutory direction of choice that allows individuals to choose the home of their preference; secondly, district auditors have responsibility for checking value for money. A third response—perhaps it is the ideal solution—is to change the nature of the Essex authority so that it is run by the Conservative party.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

Does the Minister recall that community care was introduced with all-party consent on the basis that elderly people would be able to choose between care in residential homes and their own homes? Did not the Government seriously underestimate the number of elderly people who would make the more expensive choice of living at home rather than in residential homes? How does he intend to ensure that resources match need?

Mr. Bowis

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the policy of community care. It has always been the intention that there should be the maximum choice possible within the resources available in an area. Resources must be taken into account as well. We have been putting massive resources into community care policy. This year, £5.1 billion will go into English local authorities—an increase of 12 per cent. on last year. No one can say that we are not putting our money where our policy is.