HC Deb 02 May 2000 vol 349 cc20-8WH 11.28 am
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are right—I am in my place. In fact, I am always in my place; the question is whether the Speaker identifies me as being there.

I am glad that I am here today and that we have managed to start a little early. I thank the Minister for being here to respond. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) for attending the debate. As so often happens, his train, the Great Western—the gateway to the south-west—was 40 or 45 minutes late. The main line to Devon and Cornwall is often severely disrupted and delayed. If the Minister wants members of the public no longer to travel by car but to use the train, he must ensure that the service is reliable. The Great Western train service has a bad record. It has improved of late, and I am sorry to learn that my hon. Friend was, like so many of my constituents, inconvenienced by a poor rail service.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. The debate is not about the lateness of a rail service, but about the withdrawal of social services provision in Devon. Bearing in mind that at least one other hon. Member—it may be two—wishes to speak, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will return to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Steen

Mr. Deputy Speaker, as it is not yet 11.30 I thought that you might allow me a couple of minutes to talk about the appalling train service to the west country. Now that we are approaching 11.30, I will, of course—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair sticks to the subject under debate, regardless of the time. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will come to the subject of the debate, to which the Minister will, in due course, reply.

Mr. Steen

You may have no doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that as it is now 11.30, I will speak on the subject that is tabled in my name. I am delighted to see not only my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge but my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). It is a delight to have such tremendous support from the Devon team on a subject of great importance to us.

The test of a civilised society is the way in which it treats the elderly, handicapped, sick and infirm. Devon county council is spending £108 million on social services this year. That is an increase of £5.5 million over the £102.5 million spend last year for social services, and it is good news. However, the council has cut its hot meals on wheels services for not only the old but the handicapped. It argues that frozen meals are more economical than hot meals. Perhaps they are, but they are unpleasant. As a result, there is less contact for those people. Keeping old people alive may meet statutory responsibilities but it takes no account of the fact that the old and infirm like to talk to the hot meals deliverers—a point which seems to have completely escaped Devon county council. The person who delivers the hot meal is as important as the meal itself.

Devon county council has cut hot meals for 94-year-old Evelyn Bricknell of Staverton and 92-year-old Mr. John Merton of Kingsbridge. Effectively, they have been told that if they want a hot meal, they had better cook it themselves. Both Mrs. Bricknell and Mr. Merton were telephoned by a social services official and told that their hot meals entitlement would be withdrawn. Social services were to wash its hands of these frail elderly people. It cancelled Mrs. Bricknell's cleaners and her shopping help. The social services department argued that if she could manage for three days each week when hot meals were not delivered, she could jolly well cope for seven days. That was the department's logic.

Mr. Merton was told that he could have frozen meals to heat in the microwave. The snag is that he does not have a microwave. Other octogenarians have told me that they are so unsteady on their feet and, sadly, have hands that shake badly because of various illnesses, that they would not be comfortable doing what the social services department demands of them—using a microwave and cooking their own meals. If I ever make 90—which, after almost 25 years in this place, is highly unlikely—I should like to think that the least I could expect from social services would be a hot meal each day. People who have reached the age of 90 should be able to expect a little help, courtesy and support from their social services departments.

The disabled are also being targeted. Mr. Taylor of Totnes suffers from multiple sclerosis. His hot meals entitlement has been halved. Again, a Devon county council official told him, "Don't ring us, we'll ring you." They did just that, and told him that he was to join the frozen food gravy train. All that is from a county council that has an overall budget of some £500 million. We are talking not about peanuts—in fact we are talking about hot food—but about £500 million of public money, but Devon county council cannot look after its elderly. The elderly, the ill and the infirm are the victims of cuts, even though the county's social services budget has increased. I am told that the number of officials employed by Devon county council has not been cut, nor has the cost of running local authority nursing and residential homes. We do not need local authority nursing and residential homes. We need to fill private residential homes. The Liberal Democrats' priorities, however, are exactly as one would expect—like Humpty Dumpty, they are upside down and bottoms up.

The Liberal Democrats shout about increases in parking charges at railway stations, yet at the same time, they are removing cleaning and shopping help from those who have reached four score years and 10. Like the walrus and the carpenter, the Liberal Democrats shed tears profusely about the plight of the oysters and then tuck into them with relish. If the Liberal Democrats restructured services by better use of the private sector—particularly the residential and nursing homes—it could save tens of millions of pounds, but they continue to behave like old-style socialists, believing that everything run in the public sector is better, even if it costs twice as much.

The belief that the council knows best is also well illustrated by its reluctance to fund respite care. Some 250 parents in south Devon look after children with severe physical, mental and physiological difficulties. They are devoted and caring parents and, as full-time carers, they are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All they ask is to be given the opportunity to devote a little more time to their partners and other children, yet social services refuses to pay a few hundred pounds per family to give those hard-pressed parents any relief.

About £750,000 was raised in Dartington from private sources to build a magnificent private home, the Robins, to offer somewhere for these handicapped children to go at weekends—provided Devon county council paid for that provision. Sadly, Devon county council has allowed the Robins to be only 10 per cent. full because it will not provide the funds for those disadvantaged children to go there at weekends to be properly looked after, to enjoy the friendship of their peer group and to allow their parents some time off. Most parents ask for only two or three weekends off a year, yet they cannot even secure that. If the children were fostered, it would cost around £40,000 a year and there is a statutory responsibility for foster parents to be given time off. It is all part of the Humpty Dumpty culture of the Liberal Democrats that everything is topsy-turvy and bottoms up.

The county council's social services department has also hit people with learning difficulties. Some such people, who do a 35-hour week in Kingsbridge, working on projects ranging from recycling to making cards, have had their £3 a week pocket money taken away. A county council that is supposed to be committed to caring for the elderly, the handicapped and the ill and to funding respite care has now removed the pocket money from kids with learning difficulties. Yet not one official has been removed and not one residential or nursing home has been cut. It is always those who are less able to cope or to look after themselves—the most vulnerable, who will not make a noise—who suffer. That is why today's debate is so important and why we should make a loud noise.

The previous Conservative Government introduced community care, which was aimed at encouraging the elderly to stay in their own homes as long as possible and to provide whatever help was needed by the local authority. Devon county council has started to withdraw its central community support facilities, displaying an appalling and devastating disregard for human life. What is even more sinister is that the county council realises that the frail and the elderly cannot survive in their own homes with no support and little human contact. Such isolation may lead to admission to a long-stay bed in a local hospital, which is funded, of course, by the Government and the national health service, not by the county council. That brings corresponding savings to the county council budget.

What is needed now is for an individual or group committed to the welfare of the elderly to take Devon county council to the High Court and to request an order for mandamus demanding that the judge directs the county council to carry out its statutory duties to provide for the old, the infirm and the handicapped. I am appalled to be a Member of Parliament in an area whose county council is privy to such neglect and heartlessness.

11.39 am
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I have been involved in the politics of the county of Devon—as a Member of Parliament and, before that, as a local councillor—for more than a quarter of a century. However, I have never before come across such a situation. We are talking about a council that is incapable of balancing its budget, but which attempts to do so by cutting back support services and, in some cases, removing them from some of the most frail and vulnerable people in our society.

If time allowed, I could give a string of examples of where that had happened. I could talk about parents who have been told that they must give up their respite care. I could talk about centres that provide human contact for people with severe learning disabilities, but which find that their funding is being cut. Those cuts are made not for professional social work reasons, but because that is how the budget is to be balanced. It is thought that people will be in no position to complain if it is done that way.

I cannot go through all the cases because time is short, but I shall mention the case of Simeon Hayes, which can stand as an example for them all. Simeon is a young man who has been in the Larkby psychiatric unit since August 1999. He was diagnosed early on as suffering from Asperger's syndrome, which means that that psychiatric unit is not an appropriate place for him—that is no reflection on the unit. Simeon's father then tried to take up the issue of an appropriate care package for his child with Devon county council.

The correspondence in this case has been extraordinary. A letter to me stated that Simeon Hayes's father was using his connections to raise matters with me—he is a journalist. He also happens to be a constituent of mine, and I know of no rule that says that constituents cannot contact their Members of Parliament simply because they are journalists. In a letter to the Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), the county council said that Mr. Hayes was "regularly threatening judicial review". However, he mentioned it only once. Given his lack of success in bringing about action otherwise, he might well have mentioned it.

Mr. Hayes became so concerned and frustrated that he instructed a firm of solicitors who specialised in taking recalcitrant county councils to court. The firm had already successfully sued Devon county council once, and apparently believes that the council is the worst authority of its type in the country when it comes to the behaviour that we are discussing. Only when Mr. Hayes provided the county with a copy of the statement of claim and the writ drafted by counsel did it look as if there would be action.

Finally, after all that pressure, several Members of Parliament—including the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and myself—received a letter from Devon county council on 11 April. First, it denied that the care package that Mr. Hayes had identified as being right for his son was appropriate, but it finally conceded that the package was appropriate. Mr. Hayes was informed that, on 12 April, he would be told the date on which his son could move to the Devon and Cornwall Autistic Community Trust. That is where he should have been throughout, because that was the correctly identified care package. I telephoned Simeon Hayes's father this morning to find that, even today, the right thing has not been done for Simeon Hayes. He has no date for when he will go to the appropriate placement and remains in a psychiatric unit. His father tells me that he fears the long-term effects on his son of being deprived of the correct medication and of having to take other drugs in the meantime.

My hon. Friends and I have taken up individual cases and have achieved results, but that is not good enough. It should not be necessary to take up individual cases to make the county council fulfil its responsibilities. For every case that I take up, there will be 10, 100 or 1,000 more. I should like to think that one thing will become clear as a result of today's debate. The Minister is entitled to say that the issue is primarily the responsibility of Devon county council, but Ministers know that they are ultimately responsible for everything. When it takes a journalist with the style and determination to threaten to take a county council to court to protect the life of his son, something must be done—and only Her Majesty's Government can do it.

11.44 am
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on raising this important matter. As Devon Members of Parliament, we are concerned about what is going on with the social services in our county.

I begin by pointing out that, although there has been an increase in the social services budget this year, under Liberal Democrat control, council tax payers in Devon have faced an increase in the county rate of 34 per cent. in three years. The council's constant bleating that it has not got enough money does not hold water.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has given me permission to mention his constituent Simeon Hayes, whose parents also sought my advice. I, too, have a son with Asperger's syndrome, a condition on the autistic spectrum, and I am a member of the national council of the National Autistic Society. Mr. Winterton—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should know that occupiers of the Chair in Westminster Hall are addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mrs. Browning

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

For a 14-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome to be admitted to a psychiatric unit is an indication of his overlying mental health problems; it is outrageous that his 15th birthday was while he was in the unit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge said, there are alternative services that can deal with that type of specialised condition in the west country; the Devon and Cornwall Autistic Community Trust in Truro, with whose services I am extremely familiar, provides exactly that sort of specialist support, yet, time and again, Devon county council social services kicked the case into the long grass, seeking another report here and another there, just to waste time. My hon. Friend said that the parents had to go to court; I recommend that they take the monstrous county council to court for the way that it has treated a 14-year-old boy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raised the matter of the elderly. It is interesting that this year, as it is pleading poverty and not being able to provide services, Devon county council increased the fees in its residential nursing homes while at the same time expecting the private sector nursing and residential homes in Devon to survive on a 2 per cent. increase in their fees. It is all right for Devon social services to uplift its fees by some £29 a week, but not the private sector.

The whole of the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Devon, not just the social services department, spends valuable resources on every pilot scheme, every partnership scheme, every make-work type of project that comes on to its desks, rather than focusing on delivering sharp-end services to our constituents. It is outrageous that the council produces glossy brochures to tell us about this partnership scheme or that pilot scheme when elderly people are being asked to take delivery of a month's supply of frozen meals, and to pay for them in advance, rather than on a weekly basis.

In Silverton, a rural village in my constituency in mid-Devon, one elderly gentleman took his meal at the pub every day, because the social contact was deemed to be good for him. That has now been stopped. Instead of having the support of personal contact and the appropriate package of provisions, elderly people will now have a month's supply of frozen food, and a freezer and microwave if they want it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, the human contact provided by someone popping in in the middle of the day with a few friendly words makes all the difference to elderly people, enabling them to stay in their own homes. Loneliness and isolation are two of the main reasons why many elderly people, as they become more frail, have to move out of their own homes and into care. Yet Devon county council is replacing that small amount of human contact in the middle of the day with a package of frozen food once a month. It is outrageous.

11.49 am
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. Later, I shall address specific issues relating to the financial situation in Devon and the provision of social services in the county raised by hon. Members. First, however, I shall put in context social services funding generally and Government funding for modernising social services.

As the hon. Member for Totnes rightly said, social services provide crucial support for vulnerable people, whether they be children, disabled people, the very old or the very ill. They provide a range of services to protect them, to prevent problems and to enable people to have the best possible quality of life. Nationally, some £10 billion of public money is spent on social services every year and we want to ensure that it is spent effectively. The Government's best-value policy will ensure that that happens.

The Government made the funding of social services a priority in the comprehensive spending review two years ago, the settlement for which was announced in July 1998. For the first time, we guaranteed that the funds available nationally would increase in real terms over the following three years so that local councils could plan ahead, knowing what resources would be available. Every hon. Member who spoke in the debate said that spending on social services in Devon was increasing and I shall say something about that in a moment.

In November 1998, our White Paper "Modernising Social Services" clearly set out how we expected fair, consistent and fast services to be delivered with those additional resources in partnership with local government. Both Government and councils want extra funds to have demonstrable benefits for the most vulnerable and to help people to stay in their own communities and homes for as long as possible. To achieve that objective we have introduced four new, specific grants and increased the mental health grant substantially to ensure proper support for those whose mental health problems pose the most risk to themselves and to society. We have also introduced the quality protects grant, designed to improve children's social services. We have increased the training grant for staff to carry out those essential modernising tasks in social services.

Mr. Steen

In spite of that wonderful statement, it has not worked in the Devon county council area.

Mr. Hutton

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall address the constituency issues that he raised in a moment.

The extra grants that we introduced mean that this year Devon received more than £6 million in addition to its standard spending assessment for social services. We are closely monitoring how the resources are being used in Devon and elsewhere to improve social services.

This is the second year covered by the comprehensive spending review settlement; local councils will receive an additional £492 million for social services which represents an increase of 5.6 per cent. in cash terms and more than 3 per cent. in real terms. Those substantial additional resources enabled us to increase the personal social services standard spending assessment by £425 million or 5.1 per cent. this year. The quality protects grant for children's services increased by 60 per cent., the mental health grant by £13 million and the training grant by more than £3 million. All local councils with social services responsibilities, including Devon, have benefited from those significant increases in funds.

In the time available to me, I shall address hon. Members' specific concerns. Many hon. Members raised constituency cases and if hon. Members want to raise those cases with me, I shall be more than happy, at any time, to consider them in detail. I am aware of the case of Simeon Hayes and anxious about what hon. Members said about him. I shall take a personal interest in the case and see it through.

Devon is a large council which provides social services in a large geographical area. I know that at first hand because I recently visited the county and saw the excellent work being done at the Exbank Reablement Centre, which may be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)—if it is not, I apologise to him. It is a good example of interagency working and of the type of service that should be more widely available throughout the country.

Nearly three-quarters of a million people live in Devon, mainly in a rural environment in small, diverse communities. There are eight very different district councils; Exeter city is the main conurbation and areas such as Dartmoor and Exmoor are sparsely populated. In April 1998, local government organisation created two new, additional unitary authorities, Torbay and Plymouth, which are separate from Devon county council. Devon county council fared slightly better than the national average this year in its standard spending assessment, receiving an increase of 5 per cent. compared with 4.4 per cent. nationally. Similarly, Devon's personal social services element of the standard spending assessment has increased by 5.2 per cent., slightly above the national average of 5.1 per cent.

As hon. Members have pointed out, Devon has had budgetary difficulties over a number of years. They did not all start this year or last year. The total social services budget for Devon for 1999–2000 was £111 million, not the £108 million to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred, which is its biggest social services budget ever. An overspend of between £4.5 million and £4.9 million was projected for 1998–99, but management action within the authority reduced it to £2.5 million. The reasons for the overspend were multiple. They included the complexity of the populations in Devon, excessive demand and the impact of local government reorganisation. The joint review undertaken in 1999 by social services and the Audit Commission described Devon county council as a traditional organisation with evidence of many high-quality innovative services that were not strategically joined up or consistently and equitably distributed. Those are substantial and important criticisms.

Devon has a new director of social services who arrived as the joint review findings were being reported. He reviewed Devon social services in the light of those findings. His report to the council in January identified the action that he proposed should be taken, which included a strategic financial plan to curb the projected escalating budget deficit of £9 million this financial year and to address the future budget over a three to four year period. His financial plan was agreed by all the political parties on Devon county council, including the Conservative party, which acknowledged that remedial action needed to be taken.

Mr. Nicholls

The Minister is correct that the action that had to be taken because of the maladministration of the budget received all-party support, but in no sense was all-party support given to the way that the available resources were distributed among our constituents. That is an entirely different point.

Mr. Hutton

No, I understand the difference. I said at the beginning of my remarks that I would be happy to look into individual cases that have been brought to our attention this morning. We must recognise that there were problems in the county council and all three political parties signed up to the action plan to try to address them. The plan also aimed to protect the most vulnerable people in the community. Field social work and direct service staff are not being reduced and the main cuts, as I understand it, are being directed at headquarters staff.

Mr. Steen

The Minister's speech is what one would expect. He says that the Government are giving more money to everybody, that the Liberal Democrats and Devon county council should be spending it more wisely and that all parties agreed that there would be an overspend if something drastic was not done. I pay tribute to the new director of social work who is trying to knock a few heads together, but I am concerned about the hot meals that are not being delivered to elderly people. I am concerned about the cleaning contracts that have been discontinued. I am concerned about elderly people who will be driven into the local hospital because the social services are not carrying out their duty. The Minister has not dealt with that point.

Mr. Hutton

Conservative Members took up the majority of the time in this debate and I am trying to respond to the points that were made. That is the second time that I have given way to the hon. Gentleman and I have also given way to the hon. Member for Teignbridge. I have tried to be generous, but it will almost certainly mean that I cannot deal with all the specific points that Conservative Members have made. I am more than happy to look into the hot meals service. My officials will find out exactly what the position is.

I cannot, in the remaining minutes, go into all the nooks and crannies of the arguments advanced by Conservative Members, but let me make it crystal clear that we take these criticisms seriously. We want to have high-quality services right across the country and Devon is no exception. Local people are entitled to expect that. I am concerned to hear about the low level of fee increases negotiated with the private residential care home sector. I should be very concerned if that resulted in any loss of provision or reduction in the quality of care services available to older and frail people in Devon and in the constituencies represented by the hon. Member for Totnes and his hon. Friends. We will have to see what happens there.

The introduction of the new best value arrangements will make a significant difference and will have a substantial impact on local authorities that wish to continue to preserve their role as a director. They will have to ensure that their services are directly comparable, in terms of cost and quality, to those being provided in the private sector. Unlike the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate and who want everything to be in the private sector, we take no ideological view: we believe that the quality of care, not who owns the institutions, is what matters. That is in line with people's local expectations.

I have heard the concerns expressed today about Devon's social services and I will examine them further. The hon. Member for Teignbridge is right that, at one level, these decisions are to be made by local social services managers. Councillors are accountable for those decisions. On the basis of this morning's comments, one certainly gains the impression that local elections may take place in Devon this week.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must pass on to the next debate.

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