HC Deb 12 December 2001 vol 376 cc970-7

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

12.6 am

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate on what I believe to be the issue of greatest concern in local authority funding. So great is my concern that I count it small cost to have waited here until 1.50 am last Thursday and to be here at six minutes past 12 this morning for the debate. I wish to consider the problems and the consequences of, and the solutions to, the issue of social services. I am keen to draw attention to that issue in Bedfordshire, but it is a national issue and the problems are no worse in my area than in the rest of the UK, and are probably better because of the careful financial management of the council over the past few years.

I am grateful to the Minister for attending to respond to the debate and I hope that she will respond to the points I make, given that I telephoned her office with an outline of my speech last week.

Social services spending has not been the political priority that it should have been under both Labour and Conservative Governments. There has been a long history of local authorities spending over their standard spending assessments. This year, Bedfordshire will spend 15 per cent. more, or £7.8 million, than the sum that the Government say we should spend, according to our SSA. That is in line with the average overspend of all counties in the south-east of England. Nationally, the overspend above SSA is £916 million, or 10.2 per cent. In addition, local authorities spend a further £200 million over and above those budgets to meet the demands placed upon them.

The publicity that the issue receives is usually in connection with the care of the elderly, but the greatest financial pressures relate to children's services. The Association of Directors of Social Services estimates that 64 per cent. of the total overspend will be a result of the increased demand for children's services. Between 1997 and 2000, the number of children in need nationally rose by 6.8 per cent. to 381,000. The number of children in care has increased from 49,300 in 1994 to 58,100 in 2000. The number of children looked after under court orders has doubled since 1993.

In adult services, reduced infant mortality and enhanced survival rates for children with disabilities impact on parents and siblings and on carers' ability to provide care as the carers themselves get older. In elderly care, we know that by 2007 the number of pensioners will have overtaken the number of children under 16. In the 12 months to June 2001, Bedfordshire social services received 5,969 referrals of older people in need. Many of those related to patients who should be discharged from hospital, but cannot be. In some cases, clients have died in distressingly inappropriate care.

It is time that the recruitment for the 2,000 vacancies in child protection units nationally had the same national prominence as recruiting teachers and nurses currently receives. The 50 per cent. reduction in students applying to join the social work profession is also deeply worrying.

The Government are often too keen to legislate without supplying the necessary funds to local authorities to implement the new laws. The result is that less care is provided on the front line. I shall give a recent example. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 came into force on 1 October, but the extra funding is insufficient to meet the additional responsibility placed on local authorities.

Nationally, we know that we have lost 46,000 residential care beds over the past four years, and the Care Standards Act 2000 has hastened that decline, because it requires modifications to create larger room sizes and places new restrictions on room sharing. The quality of care and not the dimensions of the room should be what matters.

There is also a lack of flexibility of funding between the NHS and social services. The close connection between the work of social services departments and the NHS means that there should be greater flexibility to spend the money between the two. The NHS has passed the lead responsibility for many services over to social services. For example, it has removed itself from the disability care field, leaving provision to be met through personal social services.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Is not one of the real problems that the boundaries for social services and the NHS are different? Consequently, it is in the interests of hospital doctors to keep people in possibly inappropriate care under the social services. The obverse is also true. As a result, people do not get the best form of care appropriate to their need.

Andrew Selous

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. The difficulty that he describes certainly compounds the problem in Bedfordshire.

A genuinely joined-up approach is needed, rather than buck-passing between the various agencies over which picks up the bill. The consequence of the problem that I have described is that vulnerable children in Bedfordshire will be at risk unless a further £4 million can be found.

That is not a statement that Bedfordshire county council makes lightly. Its social services require an extra £10 million overall to enable them to give the necessary support next year, principally to children but also to people with learning disabilities, and to older people.

Over the past few years, the county council has propped up social services budgets from its own resources. As a result, it has no reserves left to augment social services spending. Already, people on low or fixed incomes are telling me of their alarm at the size of the council tax rises that they will face to enable the council to meet its statutory undertakings.

What is the solution? There is an urgent need—in Bedfordshire and nationally—for the Treasury to make a realistic assessment of funding requirements, based on actual and projected expenditure and not on outdated standard spending assessment formulas. The extra £223,500 a year for the next two years that was given to Bedfordshire in October is welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to tackle the scale of the problem.

Finance officers from Bedfordshire county council have told me that last week's provisional local government settlement for 2002–03 still leaves the council well short of the sums needed to protect the vulnerable next year. Services for children will receive only £0.5 million of the £4 million needed, and the overall shortfall on the projected social services budget for 2002–03 will be around £7 million. That is a huge sum for England's second-smallest county, with a population of only 380,000, to find.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has kindly given leave for this intervention. Does not he agree that the burden for Bedfordshire would be rather easier to bear if the health authority's budget was not so low? Doctors calculated that the budget was some £19 million short. There has been an injection of funds recently, but it goes nowhere near making up that shortfall. It would be much easier for social services and the NHS to combine if the budgets for Bedfordshire were more commensurate with need.

Andrew Selous

My hon. Friend makes a further valuable point. I referred earlier to the NHS and social services working together, and his point is valid in that respect.

Ring fencing must be allowed so that local authorities can direct money to areas of greatest need. Social services for children, for example, are excluded from benefiting from the £223,500 given to Bedfordshire last October. Greater partnership between the NHS and local social services is also needed. It is crazy, for example, that there is a difference between a "social services" bath and a "medical" bath and even crazier that the former is charged for and the latter is free.

Governments of all persuasions must stop legislating without passporting the necessary funds for implementation. We must do all that we can to raise the status of social workers to encourage more people to enter the profession. We hear a lot about those who fall short, but little of the dedicated work of the vast majority of social workers who daily assist the needy and the vulnerable. I am sure that Bedfordshire colleagues would want to join me in paying tribute to the work of Lyn Burns, Bedfordshire's strategic director of social services, and her dedicated team for all the excellent work that they do.

Bedfordshire social services has recognised the importance of working with user groups. It has agreed, for example, that the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Leighton Buzzard can help to train the department's social workers and other professionals, such as occupational therapists and care workers, in understanding the implications of that disease for clients and their families. That is an excellent and possibly unique initiative that will result in great benefit to multiple sclerosis sufferers and their families throughout Bedfordshire.

We need to allow social workers to be included in the key worker accommodation that is currently concentrated on nurses and teachers in the high-cost south-east. We should also have a massive national campaign to promote fostering to attract more foster parents. Bedfordshire, like many counties, could do with more of these wonderful people. It is a scandal that only 2,200 children were adopted nationally last year compared with 20,000 in 1970. Let all children be considered for adoption and place a legal duty on social services to provide this. The stability and security given to our young people by an adopted family will often give them the best start to life.

Given that the lion's share—some 64 per cent.—of the social services overspend is on children's services, we need to step back from the year-on-year budgetary implications and ask what is happening in our society that means that so many more of our children are in the care of social services. National and local government, schools and the media and voluntary and faith groups all have a significant role to play in supporting and upholding family life and promoting loving, responsible parenting.

Southern European nations, such as Italy, with their strong sense of family solidarity, which leads to much lower rates of homelessness than the UK experiences, have much to teach us. I also urge the Government to study the social policies of states in America, such as Oklahoma, where non-judgmental, practical guidance to promote marriage is beginning to turn the tide. The work of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood in Washington DC has also had success in reinvolving absent fathers with their partners and children. Its work goes way beyond that of our Child Support Agency to address the emotional and relational poverty, as well as the material poverty, facing families.

We must not think that there is a tide of family breakdown that we cannot turn. Family life can be strengthened with the necessary will.

12.18 am
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on raising the important matter of social services in Bedfordshire and being willing, along with me, to stay up late on two separate occasions to discuss this issue.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly keen to see high quality social care being provided for his constituents. That is what I want, too. I am pleased to have the opportunity to describe what the Government are doing to achieve that aim in Bedfordshire and throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that Bedfordshire social services is facing difficulties this year as a result of financial pressures. I understand that the council's financial problems have been primarily related to children's services and services for adults with learning difficulties. In both these sectors, the council has had to fund external placements that have proved expensive.

I am pleased to learn, however, that following staff changes and recruitment, the council is now developing a five-year children's strategy. This strategy, in which the voluntary sector—including NCH—is expected to play a key role, will aim to reduce the council's level of external spending and make a bigger shift to family support. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is an important area of work.

Bedfordshire has been trying to alleviate its financial problems in a number of ways. When the current director of social services took up her post about 12 months ago, she recognised that the council was heading for a significant overspend and took immediate action that has led to a clearer picture of the budget position. I understand that there has also been a review of financial systems to ensure clear accountability for budgets.

I am also pleased that decisions about children's and adults' placements are now dealt with by a county panel, and that joint work has been undertaken with the health authority to make the best use of joint purchasing services for children. I shall return to the important issue of partnership work—with the health service in particular.

The hon. Gentleman has made much of the amount of additional funding that Bedfordshire county council estimates that it needs next year. The timing of this debate is such that we are able to make reference to the very latest information about the considerable investment that the Government are making in social services. That investment has been growing substantially in real terms under the Government.

Bedfordshire has benefited from that investment. This year, the council received an increase of more than 9 per cent. in its total personal social services resources, and will receive substantial extra funds for personal social services next year.

The resources that we are making available next year for social services were announced in the statement on the local government settlement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. We announced that Bedfordshire's personal social services standard spending assessment will increase by a further 6 per cent. The carers' grant will increase by a further 22 per cent. and the children's grant by a further 14 per cent. Increases of that size demonstrate the Government's commitment to social care and to making up previous underspend.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the position for older people. His figures on care place losses are wrong—like those of his colleagues. However, the Government are concerned about maintaining sufficient capacity in our care homes sector for older people, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes—indeed, I think that he did so—the £447,000 made available in early October to assist Bedfordshire county council in providing capacity and in ensuring that older people in the county have care where and when they need it. Bedfordshire will, of course, receive its share of the £200 million being made available in the next financial year for that purpose.

The hon. Gentleman made much of the need for further resources for personal social services. I agree with him: social services departments need more resources. That is why those resources have increased by 20.7 per cent. in real terms between 1996–97 and 2002–03—an average real-terms increase of 3.2 per cent. per annum. Although there is still more work to be done, I am proud that the Labour Government have achieved that. I ask the hon. Gentleman to compare those figures with the average annual real-terms growth of 0.1 per cent. per annum between 1992–93 and 1996–97 under the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman may believe that the extra investment that the Government are making available for social services is a drop in the ocean, but it is nevertheless money that his party failed to pledge to match at the June general election.

Mr. Sayeed

Does the Minister agree that since the Government came to power and changed the rules for SSAs county councils have lost £700 million due to those changes?

Jacqui Smith

No, but I recognise the significant extra investment in some of the key local authority functions, such as education and personal social services, and those increases in investment did not occur under the previous Government. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the SSA regime introduced under the Government of whom, I believe, he was a member is flawed and needs to be reformed, I agree with him. That is why this Labour Government are pledged to reform that system in time for the local government settlement next year.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire also referred to the support given to families, which is an important factor. The Government recognise that early intervention and family support is key to tackling child poverty and social exclusion. We have therefore set out a wide-ranging programme to support parents and families, which concentrates on five main areas: better services and support to parents; better financial support to families; helping families balance work and home; strengthening marriage; and better support for serious family problems.

Some 1.2 million children have been lifted out of poverty, as a result of the Government's tax and benefit changes. Child benefit has increased by 26 per cent. in real terms, to £15.50 a week for the first child. Some 1.2 million families now benefit from the working families tax credit. We have established new rights to help people balance their work and their home lives, better maternity entitlement, the right to paid holidays, paternity leave and protection against working excessive hours.

The new National Family and Parenting Institute has been set up to provide quality advice to the Government, the voluntary sector and parents themselves on the very difficult task on parenting. We have created the first ever national child care strategy, and 295,000 child care places have already been established, helping 540,000 children.

The first Minister with responsibility for young people has been appointed, and a new children and young people's unit has been created to develop an overarching strategy for children and young people's services.

A wide range of family support services is provided by local authorities, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that our children's services needed more investment. Those services include advice, guidance and counselling, day care, home help, family centres and so on. That is why the Government introduced the now five-year, £885 million quality protects programme in England, with the aim of improving the management and delivery of children's social services.

Government objectives to improve outcomes for children and young people in need have been set and local authorities are expected to show, and have shown, steady improvement towards the achievement of those objectives in their annual quality protects management action plans.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issues of fostering and adoption. The Government have supported national fostering recruitment campaigns, and I agree with him that it is crucial to attract more people. The Adoption and Children Bill, which is being considered by the House, represents the first opportunity for 25 years to modernise the legislation on adoption. It will place a duty on local authorities to provide adoption support services, backed up by £66 million of extra investment. More children have already been adopted out of care under this Government, but, of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to meet the Government's target of 40 per cent—or even 50 per cent. —more children being adopted out of care by 2004.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issue of recruitment and retention in Bedfordshire. The Government are aware that there are problems in recruiting social workers throughout the country, and I agree with him that we must all ensure that we praise the excellent work that many social workers do, day in day out, to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities. We take the issue of recruitment and retention very seriously, which is why on 10 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health launched a national recruitment campaign aimed at informing the public about social work and social care and at encouraging recruitment and retention. I am very pleased that there have so far been 13,198 responses to the campaign, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that 123 of those are from the Bedfordshire area.

We are also introducing a three-year degree-level qualification in social work to replace the current two-year diploma courses. That represents a unique opportunity to transform the status, image and position of social workers and to build on the best of social work education and training. The degree-level qualification will come into effect in England from September 2003. In addition, the Secretary of State last year announced extra investment in training for social workers and social workers currently in employment, because it is important that we not only recruit more social workers but retain those who are already in the service.

The funding of social services is, of course, important, as is the way in which councils use the funding that they receive. We are determined that the money for social services should be used to improve and modernise them. Improvements are happening. We recently published the latest set of performance indicators for the 150 councils with social services responsibilities. There is overall improvement, and steady progress is being made towards the Government's priorities.

To build on that progress, the Secretary of State recently announced that we would set about devising an overall assessment methodology that will allow us to analyse all the performance information available to us, and to generate an overall performance score. The aim is to introduce, by next spring, an overall assessment system similar to that announced in September for the NHS. Not only will that information be helpful for service users and their carers but it will be vital for the Government and local authorities, improving their ability to spot problem areas and to take appropriate measures to generate improvements where these are needed.

Of course, those improvements cannot always be delivered by social services departments alone. It is important that the various responsibilities of councils, whether in education, leisure or other services, are co-ordinated with those of social services departments to ensure that we meet, in the round, the needs of the people served by those departments. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues pointed out, it is crucial for older people, those with learning disabilities, people with mental health problems and children that departments work properly with health authorities.

This Government have, in the Health Act 1999, introduced the flexibility necessary to ensure that local authorities and health authorities can work together more effectively. That flexibility is currently being considered in Bedfordshire; for example, in the commissioning of joint equipment stores, which will utilise a pooled budget, and in the development of a joint commissioning agency for learning disabilities, for which a strategy is being developed throughout Luton and the rest of Bedfordshire with the health authority. Organisations are moving towards primary care trust status. The ability to work more carefully together will ensure that the extra funding going into health and social services is used in the most effective way for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and everybody in the country who needs to benefit from those services.

I have spent some minutes describing those major developments because they all contribute to the Government's vision of social services in the 21st century. Those initiatives, backed up by significant extra investment, provide a coherent framework for improvement. People who use social services, in Bedfordshire as elsewhere in the country, deserve and expect high quality services. We have set ourselves a challenging agenda, but we have shown ourselves willing to invest and reform to ensure that we deliver for all the people who need those services.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to One o'clock