HC Deb 11 January 2002 vol 377 cc861-70

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

2.36 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the subject of West Berkshire social services provision. It was as long ago as 19 October last year that the debate really became necessary. It was on that date that the Secretary of State for Health read out his now notorious statement at the national social services conference in Harrogate. In that statement, he named West Berkshire as one of the 14 worst-performing social services departments in the country. The statement led to an explosion of real anger among the councillors and managers of the local council, who had been so viciously and unfairly maligned.

The statement also made me and many of my constituents equally angry on the council's behalf. How dare the Secretary of State condemn those who are struggling so manfully against huge difficulties when, as I shall demonstrate, all the objective audit evidence was that the Government were the main cause of those difficulties? West Berkshire council was not informed that the Secretary of State would be making that statement. There was no opportunity for the council to put its case. One of our councillors who was sitting in the hall said that she felt as if she was being treated like a schoolgirl sitting in assembly as the exam results were announced.

The effect of the speech was horribly destructive. It stank of posturing politicians trying to deflect blame from their own inadequacies by slamming hard-working local councillors and council staff who are trying to do their job in the most appallingly difficult circumstances. It was a speech calculated to produce unhelpful headlines and to destroy local morale, while doing nothing to improve services.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the level of social service provision in West Berkshire is adequate. Indeed, everyone in the area knows how much more needs to be done. That fact is one of the greatest sources of frustration to those who struggle desperately to meet local needs within an impossibly tight budget. Nor am I making a case against rigorous inspection and monitoring to ensure that high standards are maintained. Indeed, the latest joint review between the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission praised West Berkshire for the council's responsiveness to the review process and its determination to improve performance.

What was most ridiculous of all about the Secretary of State's remarks was the way in which he completely ignored the findings of the joint review team. Only the day before the right hon. Gentleman made his speech, the inspectorate and the Audit Commission published their annual joint report in which they pointed out that while West Berkshire was not providing a high level of social care, it was at least among the top 8 per cent. of councils that had excellent prospects for improvement. When I read that, I thought that it perhaps meant simply that the council had started from such a low base of provision that it would be comparatively easy to improve. I looked in the appendix to see what criteria had been used in making that judgment. Among the qualities described as essential in achieving such a high grading were: a proven track record of identifying strengths and weaknesses and evidence of taking effective action to address weaknesses"; "effective political leadership" and "effective managerial leadership". Yet, the very next day—after West Berkshire was found by these unbiased, objective, non-party political judges to be among the top 8 per cent. of councils when measured against these criteria—the Secretary of State announced that the council was failing so badly that it was in danger of other "better-run" councils being called in to take over.

Just which councils does the Secretary of State think are going to take over, given that West Berkshire is already among the top 8 per cent. for effective political and managerial leadership and for taking effective action to overcome weaknesses? What the Secretary of State said was absurd, laughable, ridiculous and totally contradicted by the joint findings of the inspectorate and the Audit Commission.

So why did the Secretary of State get it so wrong? The first point to make is that the Secretary of State's verdict was based on a misinterpretation of some highly misleading statistics produced in the social services performance assessment framework indicators. Many of the areas in which West Berkshire is deemed to perform poorly are related to either costs or small numbers. West Berkshire is a very affluent area with high employment; which, by the way, means that we never get any special money for regeneration, home start or other such schemes. It also means that local care homes charge high prices and, if they do not get them, they sell up and make huge profits in the booming housing market. That means that the council has to pay over the odds if it wants to attract quality staff for itself.

Also, West Berkshire is a comparatively small authority. The numbers of clients involved in some of the specialized services are necessarily quite small. That means that minor changes in absolute figures—maybe just one or two more children in a particular service—can have a major impact on percentages.

Let me cite one absurdity. West Berkshire has been told to conduct an urgent investigation because the number of children removed from the child protection register and then subsequently reinstated is deemed to be too low. The assumption is that re-registrations are not taking place because social services are not monitoring the families concerned closely enough. An alternative explanation might be that social services is doing its job very well; that the council has reviewed its child protection procedures and is convinced that they are safe and appropriate. The only children who are being removed from the at-risk register are those who have been correctly judged to be no longer at risk and who should not be put back on the at-risk register. It is utterly ridiculous that the Secretary of State would have given the council a higher grading if it had put just one or two children back on the at-risk register, even if they had been judged not to be at risk.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), whom I congratulate on obtaining the debate. As a Member of Parliament representing a part of West Berkshire, I am glad that he is taking up the matter with the Government. Does he agree that there are a lot of people in need who are very worried that, as a result of the Government's attitude to the budget situation, they will not get the care and attention they need? That is why we want a sensitive and decent answer from the Minister today.

Mr. Rendel

I am very grateful for that intervention, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Moreover, his presence in the Chamber, and the fact that I know that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) would have liked to be here amply demonstrates that this is not a party political matter. On the contrary, all three parties are agreed that the blame for the situation lies with the Government and not with the local council. One of the things that the Secretary of State said in the speech to which I have referred was that sometimes problems in social services arise because of party political infighting on the local council. The joint delegation to the Minister in November, which the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) attended, and today's debate demonstrate that party political infighting is not the cause of the problem in West Berkshire.

There are many areas in which West Berkshire council would be the first to admit that it is failing to provide for its residents the level of social care that it would wish. The crucial reason is the budget settlement that the council receives from the Government. The Secretary of State's speech ignored this crucial point. It is a grossly unfair funding formula which considerably underestimates the cost of delivering services to a widespread area with a scattered population such as West Berkshire.

According to the Department of Health press release that accompanied the Secretary of State's speech on 19 October, the right hon. Gentleman said that performance in social services was not primarily about money but about management and organisation. I have explained that objective evidence shows that he was wrong to imply that West Berkshire's problems arise from a lack of effective management and organisation.

So what does the objective evidence say about funding? The joint review reported on West Berkshire as follows: In the 1999–2000 financial year, the net approved budget for social services was … 56 per cent. above the allocated SSA … Detailed scrutiny of the evidence, however, again suggests that this difference reflects the relatively low settlement from government rather than profligate spending by Social Services The joint review's findings again directly contradict the Secretary of State's verdict.

West Berkshire benefits from good management but lacks adequate funding. I do not intend to spend much time on that subject as it would be going over the ground that we covered in our joint delegation in November. Let me repeat one or two crucial statistics, however. In the 2000–01 standard spending assessment, West Berkshire receives £77 per child for children's social services. That is almost £100 less than the average, and still £34 less than a comparable authority such as Bracknell. The figure is the fourth lowest among the 150 councils that provide social services. We get £328 per elderly person in residential care, compared with an average of £446, and we still get £100 less than Bracknell. Ours is the ninth lowest figure in the country. For total personal social services, we get £113 per resident, compared with an average of £180, and that is the third lowest figure in the country

Other authorities may have a greater need to spend on social services, but the variation in Government support is dramatically out of line with actual spending needs. There is no doubt that social services in West Berkshire are grossly underfunded, in both absolute and relative terms.

Meanwhile, the council has made significant savings in the budget, totalling some £3.6 million over the past three years and a further £1.4 million planned for 2002–03. However, the current expected overspend this year is some £740,000. That figure demonstrates that further cuts are simply not achievable if the council is to fulfil even its statutory responsibilities.

Painful decisions have been necessary. The council has had to raise the threshold at which people become eligible for services and is able to purchase new packages of care for people only when resources have been freed up from existing clients. As a result, there is no ability to undertake preventive work with community care clients, particularly older people. That has had a dire knock-on effect on the local health service. What would happen if the Council spent at SSA, as the Government say it should? That would wipe £9.6 million from the social services budget, and the council would be unable to deliver even a basic level of service to people in need. It would not be possible to meet national standards for child protection. Further cuts in services for older people would be required, increasing bed blocking. Unsustainable cuts would have to be made to services for adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

In his notorious speech, the Secretary of State for Health suggested that one way in which councils could improve their social service provision would be to take a more corporate approach. In West Berkshire, the corporate board has time and again sought cross-departmental solutions. Only one local budget has not been cut to support social services—education. West Berkshire spends at its full SSA on education. To avoid further criticism from the Secretary of State, are we to cut the education budget as well? I am not sure that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills would agree with that suggestion. After all, the Education Bill going through the House at present proposes to ring-fence the education budget so that councils will have to passport their full SSA allocation.

The council, local residents and I were furious at the grossly unfair naming and shaming of West Berkshire social services. If my speech does nothing else, I hope that it will demonstrate that that anger has hardly diminished in the three months since the speech. The Secretary of State's statement on 19 October 2001 was deeply damaging to local morale, particularly since it coincided with the launch of a national campaign to show a more positive profile of the work of social services in order to encourage recruitment.

It is time the Government stopped searching for cheap headlines while avoiding their responsibility to improve services. West Berkshire is not a rogue authority that throws money about and fails to deliver. Independent assessments have shown it to be a responsible council that makes difficult decisions within tight budget constraints and with what the joint review called energetic and effective corporate leadership". Of course things sometimes go wrong and not all genuine needs can be met, but as the local Member of Parliament I have no hesitation in praising the hard work of local social services staff. They deserve better from the Government. In particular, as we said when the Minister received our delegation, they deserve an assurance that the Government will seriously address the funding shortfall that has so hindered social services in West Berkshire.

The staff deserve one more thing—an apology for the Secretary of State's unnecessary and damaging criticism last October. I hope that the Minister will have the courage and humility to admit that the Secretary of State got it badly wrong and that he will give, on his right hon. Friend's behalf, the apology that West Berkshire deserves.

2.52 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for raising the important matter of social services in West Berkshire. He will not be surprised to know that I take a different view from his, particularly on issues such as performance management and how we monitor the effective delivery of social services. I shall deal shortly with that and with his well-expressed and accurate points about funding. He is the sort of Member who will have taken the time to read the White Paper that we published in December, and he will know our stated view about the inadequacies of the local government financial system and our determination to produce a fairer and more easily comprehensible system of funding local government services.

The ability of local authorities to discharge their social services functions is affected by two important considerations. The first is the financial resources available to them. The Government provide a substantial proportion of those resources through the local government financial settlement. Although the hon. Gentleman did not say so, we have steadily increased the resources going into social services, including those for his authority.

Secondly, local social services will be heavily influenced by the overall decisions that the local authorities take about the priority, organisation and efficiency of those services. The Government for their part, through a combination of new legislation and other measures, have taken positive action to ensure that local councils have new means at their disposal to improve the quality, consistency and flexibility of local social services.

All these additional powers and freedoms are available to West Berkshire council and should be considered by the council as part of its strategy for improving the services available to local people. So while I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns over resources, he and others must not fall into the trap of simply assuming that all these problems can be addressed only through the local government financial settlement. I simply do not believe that that is true.

In that context, the hon. Member, together with leaders of the council and senior officers, recently met my fellow Minister of State, my hon Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), to discuss the overall state of social service provision in West Berkshire. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who sadly is no longer with us, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) also attended that meeting. My hon. Friend the Minister of State made several suggestions about how the council might improve the position.

My hon. Friend suggested, for example, that the council consider the benefits of using the legal powers contained in the Health Act 1999 to improve partnership working with the local NHS as well as care trust status under the Health and Social Care Act 2001. My hon. Friend also drew the council's attention to the opportunities presented by public-private partnerships to attract extra investment in social care. She also drew their attention to the new pathfinder programme administered by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions as a way of further improving the delivery of social services. I have not heard from the council, and I do not think that the Department has heard back either, about those issues, but I hope that the council has been considering how best to exploit those opportunities as a way of improving both the quality and value for money of social service delivery in West Berkshire.

At least half the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Newbury today were about local government finance and the way in which social services funding is provided to West Berkshire. I want to deal fully with the concerns that he has raised.

To put the matter in context, nationally, resources for personal social services have increased by more than 20 per cent. in real terms between 1996–97 and 2002–03—an average real-terms increase of more than 3 per cent. per annum. For historical purposes, it is important to compare and contrast that with the record of the previous Administration between 1992 and 1996–97. The comparable average annual real-terms growth figure was only 0.1 per cent.—virtually

West Berkshire has benefited significantly from this investment in social services. This year, on a like-for-like basis, the council received an increase of more than 8.5 per cent. in its total personal social services resources, including an increase of more than 6 per cent. in its personal social services SSA. In cash terms, the overall PSS funding for the council has increased from £15.8 million when the council was established as a unitary authority in 1997 to £21.2 million in 2002–03. I am not a great mathematician, but my arithmetic tells me that that is an increase of more than a third in cash terms since 1996–97. That is not an unreasonable overall increase; it is a very good increase, and I do not recall the hon. Member for Newbury referring to it at all.

We are continuing to increase the funding. Next year—2002–03—on a like-for-like basis, West Berkshire's PSS funding will increase by about 6.6 per cent. I believe that people of good will across the House and outside will regard those increases as significant. It is not just the SSA that has increased as there have been significant increases in the council's carers and children's grants, and a doubling in the new grant designed to help deal with problems associated with delayed discharges from hospital. This year, for example, the council received £258,000 through this new grant. Next year that will double to more than £500,000.

The hon. Gentleman referred to problems of the relationship between social services and the NHS. The new money has helped, for example, to reduce delayed discharges at the Royal Berkshire and Battle trust from 19 in October to three. That is real and positive progress.

With that money, the council has been able to support an extra 27 residential and nursing home placements as well as supporting care home owners by increasing fees, helping to stabilise the local care home sector. I am glad to say, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me, that the fee level is now the same in each of the three authorities in the west of Berkshire. That is an important thing to have achieved, and I congratulate the council on it. The number of nursing home places in West Berkshire, as reported by the council, has remained constant since spring last year. That is very welcome, too.

The council is also providing a new home-from-hospital service to enable people to get back on their feet, an enhanced home care service for those people with greater needs, extending the working hours of the rapid response team to enable diversion from hospital admission where appropriate, and additional staff to undertake assessments in hospital to manage the throughput of patients at times of peak demand. Those are valuable additional services.

It is wrong to imply that nothing is currently being done to help West Berkshire with extra funding. That is not true. We are taking action to improve the resources available to the council and, thanks to the way in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has presided over the economy, we can look forward to continuing improvements in the area.

Of course, we appreciate the commitment and priority most councils are giving to personal social services and recognise that social services departments face increased demand for services. That is especially true in West Berkshire. That is why we are working closely with the Local Government Association to identify the underlying source of that pressure on social services. We will be considering the outcome in the context of the 2002 spending review.

As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions published a White Paper in December, setting out proposals for a better way to fund local government. In particular, the Government are determined to simplify the methodology for distributing the general revenue grant so that it is more easily understood. We are also determined to reduce the amount of local government funding that is ring-fenced, especially for councils which are performing well, so that local government has more flexibility to make available funds to deal with local priorities. That will also help to reduce the bureaucracy associated with administering each grant, by reducing the number of plans required from councils.

In relation to reform of the general grant allocation formulae, the Department of Health has already commissioned independent research into all four of the current social services standard spending assessment formulae, with the aim of introducing improved formulae for 2003–04—the financial year after the one that we are about to enter. The Department is working closely with the Local Government Association on that research, and we shall of course share the research findings, both with local government and with hon. Members, when they become available in the spring. I hope that will enable a proper debate to take place on the new formulae before they are announced in November.

The hon. Gentleman asked why West Berkshire, in his analysis, receives comparatively less Government support than other local authorities. It does not. The hon. Gentleman has failed to take into account—although he acknowledged it in passing—the fact that West Berkshire is a relatively wealthy and affluent area, a fact made clear in the measurements of deprivation produced by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. In respect of employment and income, the vast majority of wards in West Berkshire are among the most affluent in the country. As I said earlier, it is right that that fact should be acknowledged in any rational funding formula.

The Government allocate general revenue resources to local councils using needs based formulae, which have been developed over the years by independent research. The formulae apply equally to all councils—West Berkshire is not being picked on and treated in a discriminatory fashion—so that after making allowances for the size and needs of an area, all councils receive the same level of funding relative to need. We would not, therefore, expect West Berkshire to receive the same level of funding on a per capita basis as, for example, Liverpool or—more locally—Slough—

Mr. Rendel

I did not say that.

Mr. Hutton

I realise that, but the hon. Gentleman has failed properly to address the important factor of relationship to need in the social services spending formula. He talked at length about per capita allocations. That is a deeply, deeply regressive way to allocate resources. The only way to deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman made would be either to increase the overall resources available to social services—something to which the Conservatives are not committed and I should be surprised to hear detailed figures from the hon. Gentleman—or to redistribute resources to areas such as West Berkshire away from areas of greater need. That is simply not a viable way to address the acknowledged deficiencies in the local government funding formula.

Clearly, we need to consider carefully what the new research on SSAs will show, but I strongly expect that any new formula introduced in 2003–04 would still need to take account of the social care needs of an area as measured by the level of deprivation, rather than—as the hon. Gentleman implied—a stricter per capita basis.

The hon. Gentleman asked why West Berkshire was named by the Secretary of State as one of the poorest performers on the basis of the social services performance indicators when joint review and SSI reports seemed to indicate that the council was doing well.

It is important to clarify exactly what was said. The joint review and SSI reports did not say that the council is doing well, so there is no inconsistency with the Secretary of State's announcement based on the indicators. Both reports said that the council is serving only some people well. To be clear, those reports use a four-point scale to summarise their judgments on current performance: not serving people well; serving some people well; serving most people well; and overall serving people well. The hon. Gentleman's description of the conclusions of the reports is not accurate.

In this context—

Mr. Rendel


Mr. Hutton

I have only two minutes left. The hon. Gentleman took 17 minutes to make his point, so I think that I should conclude my remarks. In this context, it is clear that to say that West Berkshire is serving some people well means that a great deal of progress still needs to be made. That is borne out in the detail of the reports.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly identified West Berkshire as one of 14 poorly performing councils because, over the past three years taken together, its performance against the indicators was poor. In the most recent year, only 56 per cent.—just over half—of the available indicators showed acceptable performance or better. Performance on the others was not acceptable. The situation has clearly improved slightly, but it still, notwithstanding those improvements, places West Berkshire near the bottom against the indicators.

Mr. Rendel

They are ridiculous indicators.

Mr. Hutton

They are not ridiculous indicators, and they are based on information supplied by the relevant authorities to the council. The hon. Gentleman highlighted one indicator: re-registrations on the child protection register. That indicator tries to identify inefficient practice in removing children from the register and reinstating them later, because that is not a good use of resources or necessarily a good indicator of practice.

Mr. Rendel

What about too few?

Mr. Hutton

Similarly, too few also gives cause for concern.

Mr. Rendel


Mr. Hutton

Unfortunately, we do not have time to have a debate about—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes past Three o'clock.