HC Deb 11 June 1997 vol 295 cc1101-8 12.30 pm
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House a problem that affects hundreds of people in my constituency and throughout Cornwall.

Before dealing with the problems of long-term care for the elderly in Cornwall, I should like, in my maiden speech, to describe my constituency. It is the penultimate seat before the Atlantic and America, a place of almost indescribable beauty, stretching from Gwithian to Portreath on the north coast, while the Carrick roads and Helford river form its southerly boundaries.

The north coast is wild and the south coast is bathed in warm air that gives us some of the world's most famous and breathtaking gardens—Trebah being one which readily comes to mind. We have creeks and coves, windswept cliffs and sun-soaked and glorious beaches, but that beauty, like so much in life, cannot mask the underlying problems that scar the area.

Unemployment is at 10 per cent. officially, yet, on estates in Redruth and Camborne, it is nearer 90 per cent. among men of working age. The old industries, such as mining, quarrying, fishing and farming, are in decline and what work there is, is often low paid and seasonal, in the tourist industry.

The last working tin mine in Europe provides a mainstay of employment in the north of the constituency, as do the Falmouth docks in the south, but where thousands were employed years ago, only handfuls of hundreds are today. Many more jobs used to be found in the tin and quarrying industries and still more depended on the mines.

Today, we have the internationally famous Camborne school of mines that has trained hundreds of people from throughout the world in its many arts. There is widespread dismay in the area because the welcome plan for a university for Cornwall in Penzance includes the proposal to relocate that famous school out of our area.

Before making this speech, I read my predecessors' maiden speeches. The last four all referred to problems of unemployment. Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic runner, spoke of the endemic unemployment, as did his predecessors, the broadcaster David Mudd, Dr. Dunwoody and Frank Harold Hayman. Senior Members may remember Harold Hayman, a Labour Member of Parliament who is still spoken of with love and affection by my constituents. "If you do half as well as our Harold," they tell me, "you won't be doing half bad."

My priority as a Member of Parliament will be to bring new work and opportunities to my constituents. I look forward with relish to the introduction of a national minimum wage which, alongside reform of our benefits system, will enable my constituents to enjoy employment and a living wage.

I shall be keen to ensure that we have a development agency to tackle the problems facing the fishing and farming communities, improve the quality of our housing and provide new opportunities for our young people through jobs and training. In Cornwall, we are concerned to ensure that the seasonal nature of much of our employment does not result in fewer opportunities for our young people and the long-term unemployed. The number of people enduring long-term unemployment is greater in reality than the figures imply.

I could entertain the House with the follies of South West Water. We pay the highest water bills in the country for a service that leaves many of our beaches polluted and fails to provide the long-term investment for which Falmouth, in particular, is crying out. However, this debate is about Cornwall Care.

I believe that all Members from Cornwall must work and speak together on issues of concern to the county. There is much that the new Government must do to remedy the ills of the past 18 years of Conservative rule. I am certain that there will be times when the Liberal Democrats are critical of the new Government; equally, there will be times when I am critical of the actions of Liberal Democrats. That is the nature of all good relationships: we all fall out occasionally. This is one of those times.

The tragedy that has prompted this debate has led some to dub the charity, "Cornwall Doesn't Care", but I leave it to right hon. and hon. Members to decide for themselves. The problem is one that all too many local authorities have had to face. The Conservative Government slanted the figures so that it was financially better for many authorities to transfer their residential homes for the elderly to housing association or charity status.

Several years ago, Cornwall county council recognised that it was facing a problem with its 18 residential homes for the elderly. Two and a half years ago, a report was produced that suggested that four homes should be closed. Understandably, there was uproar when it was published. People, including the then chair of policy and resources, in whose ward one of the homes was located, do not want their local homes to close.

The controlling group proposed that a new charity, Cornwall Care, should be created. The county council would retain ownership of the homes but the services would be delivered by Cornwall Care. Last April, the new charity took control of the services and announced that existing staff would have to sign new contracts of employment considerably worsening their terms and conditions.

Many of us recognised that the figures did not add up and that the new charity would be forced to take action when the staff were transferred into their employment. I met many of the staff, some of whom faced losing more than £300 a month. That was their mortgage, and many told me that they would not be able to survive financially under the new terms.

For weeks, pressure was put on those caring members of staff to sign the new contracts. They were told that if they failed to sign, they would lose their jobs. I have some knowledge of transfer of undertakings law and I joined many others in publicly warning the charity that it would face industrial tribunals.

Eventually, 249 staff decided to take their cases to an industrial tribunal. All were dismissed. That was not an easy decision for them to make. Many had worked for the county council for more than 20 years, and I know that their decision caused them great anguish and misery. To a man and a woman—they were mostly women—they said that they loved working with the residents and wanted to continue doing so, but that they could not and would not sign the contracts.

The case was heard in Truro in the middle of the general election campaign. The former staff won and the result was widely publicised in the national media. Since then, the situation has deteriorated. The charity has announced that it will be forced into liquidation if an appeal is unsuccessful, and I understand that it has recently said that it faced severe financial problems whatever the result of the appeal. That has meant that existing staff are concerned for their futures and that residents—and their families—are worried about where they will live. The staff who won the industrial tribunal feel pressure not to take up their legal entitlement and a general miasma of worry is hanging in the air.

During the election campaign, I met folk in tears about the situation. I met one woman, who was clutching a letter from Cornwall Care and who was in tears on her doorstep. She implored me to act as soon as I won the election, because she was so worried about her mother, who was a resident in one of the homes in my constituency. That was one reason why I, with many other hon. Members, signed an early-day motion about Cornwall Care last month.

Meanwhile, the county council, which was embroiled in elections itself during the general election campaign, said that the problem was for Cornwall Care to resolve. My intention in requesting this Adjournment debate was to knock a few heads together at Cornwall Care and the council. The county council, as the owner and purchaser of the service, has a responsibility to resolve the problem. Occasionally, local government gets its priorities wrong and sometimes councillors make the wrong decisions. When Labour local authorities err, as a party and a Government, we have rightly condemned them. It is time for the Liberal Democrats to do the same.

I have consulted the Liberal Democrats' general election manifesto, which was entitled "Make the Difference". It states: Older people in Britain should be able to look forward to a retirement of security, opportunity and dignity. Older people feel that they are fast becoming Britain's forgotten generation. Many of the residents of Cornwall Care feel that they have been forgotten, that they have no security and that the whole sorry mess is very undignified.

Many of us believe that the county council knew that Cornwall Care would lose at an industrial tribunal. It is not right for local authorities to transfer a problem to another body rather than face the political flak. The residents and their families and the former and current staff need to be reassured about their futures. The whole sorry mess could, and should, have been avoided. The elderly in Cornwall deserve better and I call on the Liberal Democrats in Parliament, from whom I would like to hear on the issue some day, to demand that their colleagues on Cornwall county council to resolve the problem.

12.41 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Paul Boateng)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her maiden speech. It showed passion, conviction and high intelligence, and was in the best tradition of maiden speeches in that it touched on a matter dear to her heart and those of her constituents. We look forward to more such contributions in the many years during which she will grace the House.

My hon. Friend began her speech by referring to her predecessor as a Labour Member of Parliament in Falmouth and Camborne, Frank Hayman. She stirred childhood memories of mine, because Frank Hayman was known in Cornwall and throughout the west country for his radical and caring contribution to the politics of the region. At that time, my grandparents, who retired to the west country for the beauty of its vistas and the friendliness of its people—which, as my hon. Friend mentioned, are the main reasons for its attractiveness—lived in Exmouth in Devon. There was a shortage of Labour Members in Devon for a time, but I am happy to say that has been remedied by the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). Frank Hayman was pre-eminent in the Labour party as parliamentary private secretary to the then leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell and his name always brought a cheer to my grandparents' household in Withycombe Raleigh. I therefore have great pleasure in responding to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne.

The number of senior citizens drawn to the west country means that the issue of care for the elderly is important in Cornwall. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne is right to give that issue the prominence that she has by requesting an Adjournment debate. I can assure her that the Government are committed to ensuring that we introduce a proper structure for the long-term residential care of the elderly. We are determined to meet their needs and achieve value for money while preserving their dignity. They are still able to make a valuable contribution to the community and we must not ignore that. They deserve the dignity that comes from knowing that their place in the community is secure.

My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the problems affecting the security of elderly people in her constituency. We are concerned about whether the Cornwall Care trust will be able to continue to operate, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will not stand by and allow people to be made homeless if the trust collapses. The Government, together with local authorities, have a responsibility to ensure that old people do not find themselves in that position. Through the social services inspectorate, we are monitoring the situation closely to ensure that Cornwall county council properly exercises its social services duties to vulnerable people in need of residential care.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Minister will be aware that I led an all-party delegation from the county council to meet his predecessor. It is notable that, with the exception of one hon. Gentleman who has just arrived, no members of the Conservative party are present in the Chamber, because it is unrepresented in Cornwall. The previous Minister made it clear that he wanted the county council to be completely detached from all provision of residential care. He wanted it all put out to the private sector. The Liberal Democrats welcome the fact that the new Government take a different attitude. I ask the Minister to recognise that many other local authorities, including Labour ones, have had to adopt similar provisions to those in Cornwall. Those authorities will listen carefully to the assurance that he has just given that the Government will be prepared to help the authorities— hope, financially—to maintain their responsibilities.

Mr. Boateng

I make it clear that we recognise that, alongside local authorities, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that no old people are made homeless when a trust such as the one in Cornwall collapses. I shall come in due course to the Government's attitude towards the balance of private-public provision and the role that we believe voluntary, private and statutory sectors should play.

The county council has assured the social services inspectorate that it is fully aware of its responsibilities towards residents and that it will act to protect their interest. Contingency plans have been made to cover the transfer of residents from homes owned by Cornwall Care in the event that the trust collapses. Any such transfer will be made over a reasonable period of time and will take full account of residents' individual needs. We shall monitor the situation very closely in that regard.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne for drawing the matter to the attention of the House. She is right—it may grieve hon. Members on the Liberal Benches—to point out that the controlling party on the county council, the Liberal Democrat party, must bear some responsibility for what has arisen. It does bear some responsibility. It has, of course, the responsibility to ensure that it puts in place arrangements that protect, secure and safeguard the position of senior citizens for whose care it is responsible. I hope and believe that it will be mindful of that responsibility.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boateng

No, I have given way enough to Liberal Democrats.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne that we shall do all in our power to ensure that the ruling party has available to it the advice that the social services inspectorate is on hand to give. The Liberal Democrat ruling party can be sure that that advice will be forthcoming.

I look forward to visiting the west country—tomorrow, as it happens—where I shall be meeting the assistant director of social services for Cornwall, Sandra Whitehead, with whom I shall certainly raise the concerns expressed in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne. I shall do so not least because Sandra Whitehead will be accompanied by the director of Age Concern, which I have no doubt has its own concerns about the welfare of residents.

My hon. Friend highlighted the fact that very many members of our older generation feel disenchanted and disenfranchised. They feel that they have been let down—and they were shamefully let down by the previous Government. It is our intention to address those feelings of betrayal. We are determined to bring senior citizens very much into the centre of our policy making and provision. We are determined that they shall be empowered and enabled by the process, rather than disenfranchised, as they understandably and justifiably feel that they are.

We want consistency and fairness, which is why we have made clear our intention to introduce a long-term care charter that tells people what standards and services they are entitled to expect from health, social services and housing. In developing that charter, we shall work closely with service users to ensure that their views are taken on board. We believe in genuine consultation in developing policies. Had such consultation taken place earlier in Cornwall, had those in a position to affect events been able to draw on the wisdom of our senior citizens and organisations that represent them, we would not find ourselves on the sorry path on which we find ourselves today.

We attach importance to proceeding not on the basis of whether provision is in the public or private sector or on the basis that characterised the previous Government's attitude of private good, public bad—that was a previous dispensation and is no longer so—but with determination to ensure that what counts is quality; that what matters is value added to the lives of the recipients of care and value for money for those who are called on through their taxes and contributions at local and national level. We intend to ensure that people get such value.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to some matters that are the subject of an industrial tribunal and an appeals process. She will understand why I cannot involve myself in such matters, which are for the industrial tribunal and the courts, where they and the issues that have arisen from litigation are being addressed. Industrial tribunals are independent judicial bodies and Ministers cannot comment on their decisions or intervene, as I am sure my hon. Friend understands.

It is important, not only Ministers but for the whole House—my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne did it in no uncertain terms—to highlight the value that we attach to those who work in residential homes. The people who work in homes, such as those managed by Cornwall Care, do a hard and at times difficult job, very often in circumstances in which they do not feel as appreciated as they might. We appreciate them; they are engaged in a very important task. We ask of them to care for those who are older and vulnerable.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the staff of our residential and other homes feel that they have access to not only high-quality training but, as individuals and through their unions and associations of staff and workers, development of policy.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng


The staff have a wisdom through day-to-day contact with senior citizens from which we could all benefit.

I very much look forward to the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne on this subject. She clearly displays a knowledge of the contribution of her constituents who are not only in receipt of care but responsible for giving it on a day-to-day basis. Her voice will be particularly welcome in that regard. Her academic discipline in social studies will obviously be of enormous value to the House and her constituents in such an important area of social policy.

We are concerned that, throughout the country, there should be a system of care for the elderly that is buttressed by a framework that provides good quality care not simply for those who have the ability to buy it but for those who need it. That is crucial to our vision of that care.

In due course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce how we propose to fulfil our commitment on the funding of long-term care for the elderly. In the meantime, we shall continue to promote high-quality provision, ensure fair access to it and offer opportunity and choice to all.