HC Deb 20 May 1998 vol 312 cc913-20 12.30 pm
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a series of concerns relating to the operation of the Registered Homes Act 1984 and the Children Act 1989 in respect of the recent registration of Cherry Tree day nursery, which operates in premises that were, until recently, used as a residential care home known as Garden house. The establishment is situated at the junction of Upper York street and Borough road, close to Wakefield city centre.

When the House previously discussed the operation of the 1984 Act and wider issues concerning care provision, I expressed my worries about weaknesses in the legislation in respect of the suitability and fitness of the owner or owners of businesses that are subject to registration. The developments that I shall outline today in respect of the former Garden house establishment and its transformation into the Cherry Tree day nursery, under the same ownership, provide a clear illustration of the need to ensure that the forthcoming proposals for reform of registration and inspection procedures deal clearly with the suitability and fitness of owners as well as managers and staff.

I want to make it clear at the outset that I have no reason whatever to raise questions about the fitness, suitability or competence of those staff working in the Cherry Tree day nursery who had no previous involvement in the running of the former Garden house care home. I hope that when they are aware of the numerous representations that I have received about this matter, they will understand why it has been necessary to bring it to the attention of the House. I emphasise that my prime concern is to illustrate a major weakness in the law that has allowed Mrs. Pauline Webster, the owner of a care home that had caused the local registration authority serious concerns, to register another care enterprise with a different client group and legal framework.

My involvement in the matter began in 1996, when some constituents sought my advice on the placement of their elderly mother. I recall advising them to contact the local Abbeyfield trust, which operates an excellent establishment in Wakefield. I later learned that their mother had, for whatever reason, been admitted to the Garden house residential home. Prompted by its owner, Mrs. Webster, they wrote to me asking for my support in objecting to a planning application to convert a carpet shop adjacent to the home into a nightclub and discotheque. The local authority refused the application in November 1996, but I am advised that Mrs. Webster asked all relatives to keep an eye on planning applications mentioned in the local paper.

The daughter of one of the residents has given me a written statement, which sets out in her terms the subsequent events. Although I have permission to quote verbatim from that statement, and from statements made to me by relatives of other former Garden house residents, I do not intend to reveal their identities during this debate because at least one of them—along with me and the local newspaper, the Wakefield Express—has already received what I can only describe as threatening letters from solicitors acting on behalf of Mrs. Webster. However, I am only too willing to make available to the Minister all the correspondence and evidence that I have received on the matter, which substantiate in detail the serious concerns that I shall express.

The daughter writes: One Friday evening in February (1997) on my way back from visiting my mum in Garden House, I picked up the local paper as usual. Whilst having my lunch I was horrified to see Mrs. P. Webster, Day Nursery, same address as residential home in planning. The lady was understandably deeply concerned that, having only recently settled her mother into Garden house, assuming that it would be for the rest of her days, the establishment was apparently to be converted into a day nursery. She immediately rang Garden house and spoke to Mrs. Webster's niece, Ms Amanda Lodge, with whom she had already conversed earlier that day when nothing had been mentioned. She said: She assured me Mum would be fine for at least two or three years, nothing at all to worry about, it's just in case Hanson's (the carpet shop) does become a nightclub or pub, then it would not sell as a residential home. It all sounded fine to me and others too. On 4 March 1997, the daughter paid £940 advance fees in respect of her mother's care, effective from 6 March. On 18 March, Mrs. Webster rang her to say that the home was closing and her mother had to leave as soon as she could find her an alternative place.

The daughter of another resident wrote that she, too, had sought assurances from Amanda Lodge after the appearance of the planning application for a nursery. Ms Lodge had said that there was no way in which that could happen. In a letter the daughter says: I carried on visiting my mother until on 17 March Mrs. Webster rang me at home and asked me to look for somewhere else for my mother within the next fortnight as she was closing. I was absolutely shocked and in my opinion she should have told me earlier if she knew what was happening. I think she just kept everybody there to keep her money coming in. Another letter that I received states: I did not like the way I was given 12 days notice for my mother to find another home. My mother did not want to go into a home in the first place and she had just settled down and then we had to go through all the upset again. Other letters from relatives of residents make similar statements, some of which refer to disputes with Mrs. Webster over allegations of outstanding fees. In one case, the family concerned had clear evidence of having paid in advance for the care of their relative, but, as she left the home, Mrs. Webster allegedly threatened them in a very hostile and abusive manner". One of the relatives said that the family paid the £235 fee only to stop Mrs. Webster besmirching my mother's or our name". The family then immediately put the matter in the hands of solicitors.

Another family was owed £470 for overpayment of fees at the time of the closure. I have evidence to show that the cheque that Mrs. Webster issued to them on 20 March for that amount bounced when presented at a building society.

It is now apparent that alterations to turn the home into a day nursery were being undertaken while the elderly residents were living there, unaware that they would shortly be made to leave. The first relative whom I quoted states: Sometime at the end of January, beginning of February (1997) work started on Garden House and it got worse. When I asked, it was 'Oh, a leak here and another one there.' It was still going on when my mum moved out and a large fireplace was taken out of my mother's bedroom whilst she and the lady she shared the room with were still using that room and which they had paid for. Another relative wrote that her mother was moved from her own bedroom to another one as the alterations started before the residents even knew that they were to leave.

Unfortunately, I became aware of those developments only after Garden house was closed and several relatives of former residents complained to me about their treatment. I was especially concerned to receive detailed complaints about the quality of care received at the home, which in some cases became apparent only once the residents had moved elsewhere. For instance, one person had had serious worries about an itchy rash that her mother had had on her body for several months. It caused her to scratch, sometimes until she bled. When she moved to another home, the rash was immediately recognised as scabies, for which she and all the other residents received immediate treatment. I find it astonishing that that condition had been deemed to be a nervous rash during her stay at Garden house. After the concerns of relatives featured in the Wakefield Express in 1997, I received a letter from someone who had worked at Garden house, making detailed allegations of residents being frightened of Mrs. Webster.

After receiving representations from relatives of former residents, I took up their detailed concerns with the chief executive of Wakefield metropolitan district council, the registration authority. I was advised that a range of concerns about Garden house had culminated in the issuing of a section 20 notice in August 1994, to ensure compliance with standards. The registration authority had become aware of the possible change of use in December 1996 through informal inquiries by Mrs. Webster about day nursery registration.

After the environmental health department had been asked in February 1997 to make an advisory visit regarding day nursery proposals, the registration and inspection unit wrote to Mrs. Webster on 18 February 1997, referring to the possible change of use of Garden house. The letter advised: In view of the need to ensure that the needs of current users are met, it would be important to ensure good communication between her and the Adult Section of the Registration Unit if she decided to proceed with an application for a change of registration. During the following month, the unit spoke to Mrs. Webster about the need for careful planning to minimise disruption to residents, and she was asked to forward information about residents for whom the local authority had responsibility. It says that she did not provide the information until it made a follow-up telephone call.

The unit learned of the imminent closure of the home following a telephone call from the contracts section of the community and social services department on 24 March 1997. It visited Garden house that day, and established that a number of residents had been moved and that the home was due to close on 28 March. In his letter to me of 22 May 1997, the chief executive of Wakefield metropolitan district council states: Mrs. Webster was not at the home on this visit and had not at any time advised the unit of the home's closure date. In the same letter, he advised me that, on 25 March, a letter was sent to Mrs. Webster summarising previous correspondence and communication between the unit and her over the closure, advising her that she had again not complied with the requirements of regulation 14 of the Residential Care Homes Regulations 1984 and requesting the immediate return of the certificate of registration.

Mrs. Webster did not reply, so a further letter was sent to her on 15 April 1997. The certificate was returned to the unit through her solicitor on 17 April. The chief executive's letter advised me at the time that a letter was being sent to local authorities in England and Wales recommending that they contact Wakefield metropolitan district council should Mrs. Webster apply to register a residential care home.

On 1 July 1997, a sub-committee of the council's community and social services committee cancelled Mrs. Webster's registration as the person in control of Garden house, and that of Mrs. C. Russell, its registered manager. On 16 December 1997, the sub-committee considered an application by Mrs. Webster and Ms Lodge to be registered to provide full day care at Cherry Tree day nursery, which had the same address as Garden house.

The committee was given legal advice in relation to sections 79(9), 71(10) and 71(11) of the 1989 Act which explain that powers to refuse registration have to be related to the fitness of an applicant to look after children aged under eight. The sub-committee was advised of the concern of officers about the abrupt closure of Garden house and the complaints received about that. It was also advised of the serving of the notice on Mrs. Webster about the breach of regulations under the 1984 Act.

It was recognised, however, that, despite those concerns, the authority was constrained by the legal advice relating to the fitness of the applicant to look after children, as defined in the 1989 Act. In the circumstances, the sub-committee took the view that registration would not be granted until it was provided with specific information about the qualifications and experience of those who would have day-to-day responsibility for the service. That information was considered by the sub-committee on 10 March 1998, and, because of the satisfactory arrangements that had been made for the day-to-day management of the day nursery and on the basis of the available advice, registration was granted.

I have no criticisms of the actions of the local authority in respect of the case. I believe that anomalies in the 1989 Act prevented it from refusing a registration when it had clear grounds for serious concern arising from the running and subsequent closure of Garden house. In a letter to me on 15 May 1998, the director of social services wrote that. under the Act, the employment of suitable qualified and experienced staff who will manage the service on a day to day basis in the form of Officer in Charge and Deputy Officer in Charge, is the issue which registering authorities have to decide on with regard to the fitness of an applicant. In this context, the employment of suitable staff with responsibility for managing the service on a day to day basis, effectively places a barrier between Mrs. Webster's role with regard to the closure of Garden House and the extent to which this can be taken into account in the operation of Cherry Tree Day Nursery. In effect, the 1989 Act became a barrier to proper consideration of information on the actions of two people previously registered under the 1984 Act and involved in the day care of children.

The registration of the Cherry Tree day nursery was reported in the Wakefield Express on 20 March 1998. To its credit, concern over subsequent developments was fully reported, despite threats of a libel action by Mrs. Webster's solicitors over coverage of the closure of Garden house. As a consequence of that further press coverage, I received a fax that same day from Mr. David Crisp of Gough and Norris Construction, a building company based in Wakefield. I have Mr. Crisp's permission to refer to its contents.

Mr. Crisp advised me that Gough and Norris carried out a significant amount of work for Mrs. Webster on improving the car park and the garden/play area at the nursery. To date Mrs. Webster has not paid a penny for the work and clearly has no intention of doing so. Gough and Norris have taken Mrs. Webster to court and I attach the awards made in our favour. Sadly, the courts cannot, it seems, make Mrs. Webster pay and we have to find a way of securing our debt. He continues: We are not the only company that Mrs. Webster employed and we are aware of others who are either owed money or who have had to turn to the courts to secure payment. We are a small company and somewhat naively assumed that Mrs. Webster would honour her agreement when the works had been completed—Mrs. Webster is clearly not an honourable person and has in our opinion openly manipulated the system to avoid paying her debts. The company enclosed copies of a judgment of Wakefield county court dated 20 January 1998 ordering Mrs. Webster to pay it £3,564.24, and a copy of an application from Mrs. Webster dated 28 January 1998 for the judgment to be set aside because the court's information was sent to Zermansky's solicitors, which she states no longer represents her. That is especially interesting, because the solicitors Zermansky and Partners of Leeds wrote the letter threatening legal action on behalf of Mrs. Webster to the Wakefield Express on 29 September 1997.

On 16 April 1998, the firm also wrote to a woman whom Mrs. Webster believed had written to the Wakefield Express complaining about the way in which Garden house closed. On the same day, it also wrote to me, on behalf of Mrs. Webster, suggesting that I was not aware of what it termed the full facts of the case, of which it was preparing a detailed summary. It promised that summary, for which I asked urgently, more than a month ago; it was faxed to me earlier this week, presumably because this debate was to take place. I have made it available to my hon. Friend the Minister. In my view, it does not in any way address the serious concerns expressed by my constituents.

For a considerable time, I have been under enormous pressure from many of my constituents to bring the matter to Parliament's attention. Since the day nursery's registration, I have had to balance the serious concerns of those affected by the Garden house closure, and of companies such as Gough and Norris, with the interests of staff who work at the nursery, but have no connection with Garden house. I hope that the staff concerned understand that I would have been failing in my duty if I had not acted on the representations received.

I hope that the Minister will assure me that this apparent anomaly in legislation will be addressed and that steps will be taken to deal with other issues that arise from this case. I appreciate that several of these issues relate to the responsibilities of the Department of Health, but, for the record, I should like to make the point that Age Concern in Wakefield was extremely perturbed that, when Garden house was closed, there was a lack of sanctions available to the local authority. It suggests that a local authority should have the ability to take control of a private home in such a situation until suitable new homes have been found for residents—rather like an official receiver takes control of a business.

I add one other point, which is also relevant to the Department of Health's role. At the time of the closure, the local authority was obviously primarily concerned with those residents whose care costs it had met. The other residents were fortunate to have relatives who were able to seek alternative placements, but, if they had been elderly people with no families, I wonder how they would have fared.

I appreciate that much of the debate relates to Department of Health concerns as well as to those of the Minister's Department, but I look forward to her comments on the concerns that I have expressed.

12.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) for bringing this matter to the House. It is clearly an issue of great concern in his constituency, not only to people who have been residents and their families, but to others who may, as he says, find themselves in a similar situation. As he says, the case that he has quoted spans legislation that is covered by both the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment. I welcome the opportunity to respond to his concerns and to set out the Government's views on the subject.

There are clearly two issues: the registration of the residential home and the registration of nurseries and child care establishments, which is perhaps of greater importance, given the work that the Government are doing.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the history of the Cherry Tree day nursery. He has set out important details relating to the nursery's former existence as a residential care home for the elderly, which was closed at short notice by the owner, causing considerable distress to the residents of the home at the time. As he is aware, such homes are registered under the Registered Homes Act 1984, which is the responsibility of the Department of Health.

I assure my hon. Friend that registration authorities can decide to cancel a home's registration if the home is considered to be seriously in breach of registration conditions. Emergency powers are also available. He will also be aware that there are occasions when, for a variety of personal reasons, a home owner may choose to cease trading and that it is very difficult for the Government or local authorities to intervene in such a decision.

I understand from contacts that my officials have had with Wakefield metropolitan council that the closure of Garden house was at the owner's instigation, and that, at that time, the local authority had no evidence of any impropriety or serious risk to the home's residents to cause it to consider closure itself. However, my hon. Friend paints a disturbing picture of the events surrounding the closure of Garden house and hints at misconduct by the owner. He will agree that local authorities should take action only when clear evidence is put before them and that, in the interests of fairness, it would not be reasonable to do otherwise. However, the general fitness of a person and their ability to care for children should be taken into account when deciding not only on original registration, but on matters that might be brought before local authorities subsequently.

I turn to the process of registration for the Cherry Tree day nursery, as carried out by Wakefield metropolitan council. I understand that, in December 1997, an application was made to the council for registration under the Children Act to provide full day care at Cherry Tree day nursery, at the site of the previous residential home. Primary responsibility for making judgments on those issues rests with the local authority.

In deciding whether to register the nursery, the authority considered carefully the fitness of the people who were applying for registration. I shall return to that matter because I accept that it is at the core of what my hon. Friend has been speaking about. The authority's consideration covers the fitness of the person who seeks registration to care for children, the fitness of anyone likely to be working or living at the premises where care is provided, and the fitness of the premises.

The authority concluded at that time that it had no evidence or other grounds to refuse registration. If such evidence were forthcoming, the authority would have ample scope within the legislation to refuse registration for the nursery. Indeed, if there is concrete evidence or serious concern that any person is not fit to care for young children, the authority has ample powers under the Children Act to cancel registration. It is important to note that it is not only initial registration that ensures use; the authority has powers to cancel that registration as well. If the evidence suggests that any child who uses the service is at risk of serious harm, emergency powers are available for the immediate cancellation of registration. I understand that no such evidence has been brought to the local authority's attention, so it has not felt able to act.

Let me outline what we have done and are doing to help to reassure families and to improve services for children. We know that early years services have evolved considerably over the past few years. As well as an increasing number and variety of providers, there is a strong move towards the integration of early education and day care. Indeed, for all children, particularly the youngest, the two concepts cannot sensibly be separated. Regulating the provision of early education and day care is essential to ensure the safety and welfare of children; to provide additional assurance to parents; and to ensure that public funds are well spent.

It is crucial that any parent who puts their child in any caring establishment that claims to provide care, education or both has the reassurance that their child will be well protected. The system of regulation and inspection for both child care and early years education that we inherited from the previous Government leaves a lot to be desired. As both those sectors have grown in importance, there has been no cohesive action to make sense of the different regulatory and inspection frameworks that operate.

That is why, on 27 March, we issued an important consultation paper on the way forward for inspecting and regulating establishments such as the Cherry Tree day nursery. I reassure my hon. Friend about the five principles on which the consultation paper is based. They are those identified by the better regulation task force: consistency, transparency, proportionality, targeting and accountability.

The paper is out for consultation. Because we do not want to prejudge the issue, it asks a series of questions about what we have identified as the key issues. I reassure my hon. Friend that one of the questions that is specifically raised is what we should do when we consider fit people and premises requirements in relation to the regulations. We look forward to receiving many constructive and thoughtful responses, which will help us to devise a more appropriate regulatory regime. I will take his comments as a response to that consultation, but, given his wide experience in this matter and his clear constituency interest, I hope that he will feel able to respond further and in greater detail to the specific questions that we have asked.

My hon. Friend has raised a crucial issue: the care of those who are often the most vulnerable in our community. They have a right to be protected, and that will happen only if we have a regulatory and inspection framework that enables that inspection to be robust. His debate is timely not only because the Department of Health is reviewing its inspection arrangements for residential homes, but because we are reviewing our regulatory framework for people who look after young children.

I shall consider the questions that my hon. Friend has raised, in particular whether owners are included in the category of fit people. I shall ensure that, in further consultation, we emphasise the need, as my hon. Friend rightly did, to ensure the appropriateness of the owner of an establishment, as well as those who run it. I thank him for bringing the matters to the attention of the House, and I look forward to hearing his further comments as part of our consultation.

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