Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)
It is a pleasure to serve under you this morning, Mr Chairman. I first wish to thank all Members who have given up their time this morning to debate the very important matter of sheltered housing.
According to the most recent English housing survey, 610,000 mainly older people live in sheltered accommodation. As a sector, sheltered housing has something of a mixed reputation. Some sheltered housing is old and provides bedsit accommodation, which is increasingly hard to let. At its worst, it has provided councils with an opportunity to house hard-to-place tenants—for example, people with drug and alcohol problems—and unsurprisingly that is upsetting for the conventional older tenants for whom the schemes were originally intended. At the other end of the sheltered market there are high-quality flats available for lease purchase and renting. What all those options have in common, however, is the availability of services that are promised as part of the housing entitlement.
I digress for just a minute to remind Members of the next big thing in older people’s accommodation: extra-care homes. Some Members might already have such establishments in their constituencies. My own borough of Dudley is opening several extra-care homes next year. These establishments promise services that tenants and owner-occupiers can avail themselves of on a flexible basis, according to their age, mobility and mental state. The important thing is that the services are available; that is what people will buy into. Although they might not, at first, need a carer to visit them regularly or to have mobility aids in their flat, as they age and their needs change they will be able to access that additional support as part of the package. Does that sound familiar? Although the services offered in extra-care homes are more diverse and far-ranging than those provided by most sheltered housing schemes, the principle is the same. Someone pays the money, and as their needs increase they are guaranteed access to greater support.
On the basis of trends in the sheltered market in recent years, I would say, “Buyer beware.” In sheltered housing, those essential services are being eroded over time. The tenant or leaseholder—this happens in both the private and the social sector—moves into their accommodation on one basis, thinking they will be secure in their old age, only to find that as time goes by the management organisation starts to whittle away the services on which they depend. The distress caused to older tenants and leaseholders by the various changes, in some cases forced upon them by their housing provider, is as great as it is unjust. Several types of service are affected, but the most controversial is warden support.
Research by the Sheltered Housing UK Association found that 97% of residents surveyed said that their decision to move into sheltered housing had been influenced most of all by the presence of a live-in warden. A Help the Aged report, entitled “Nobody’s Listening”, found that 67% of Supporting People administering authorities felt that warden services were the most important aspect of sheltered housing for older residents.
Not everyone agrees. Imogen Parry, director of policy for the Essential Role of Sheltered Housing, which represents housing providers, said that her organisation believes that
“sheltered housing can be provided through a range of models”
—I am sure it can—
“not just through schemes with resident wardens.”
She then quotes from research by Hanover, one of the housing providers:
“Many people neither want nor value 24-hour on-site management services”.
So that will be why tenants in Barnet and Portsmouth have taken their local authorities to court for threatening to move from on-site to floating warden support.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate on this very important issue. Residents in my constituency are equally concerned about losing warden services, but the problem is twofold. The full service is being taken away, leaving only a nine-to-five service, and people are being asked to pay an additional charge when the service was part of the overall package they had when they moved in. They are losing on both counts.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady. It is true that elderly people buy into these schemes and originally have an on-site warden service. As she says, not only is that taken away, made off-site and shared by various other housing organisations, but it used to be free and is now chargeable. So, the service is getting worse and the fees are increasing in many cases.
In Portsmouth, we have an additional problem to the wardens—whom the court case was about—in that bathing and other services are being charged for. This is all happening at once, and many elderly men and women are extremely frightened at the prospect of their bills going up by £20 a week or more.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We must not forget that most of these residents and tenants are on fixed incomes. They have bought into the schemes on one basis, and a promise has been broken. I shall come on a little later to some of the options available to people in that position. Judicial reviews of decisions by housing providers have also been sought by tenants in no fewer than 50 housing schemes in 20 authorities. That gives the lie to the assertion by the housing providers that their residents “neither want nor value” on-site management services.
We are talking about a vulnerable group of people, many of whom are on fixed incomes. Many people in that situation are increasingly frail and are no match for large housing organisations and their teams of lawyers, which is presumably why some companies—charities even, which I find very surprising—have attempted to impose the sort of changes we have heard about this morning on leases and tenancy agreements, without consultation. Although the change that has caused the most distress is the replacement of a live-in warden service with an off-site visiting manager—with whom it is necessary to make an appointment, which is often charged for, even though it was free according to the terms of the original agreement—other changes such as the national procurement of local services and escalating management charges with no associated improvement in the service offered are also a big problem for owner-occupiers in the leasehold sector.
I was first alerted to this problem by two constituents of mine in Stourbridge, who do not wish to be named. They had bought into sheltered accommodation on a leasehold basis. A charity ran the establishment, along with several hundred other establishments nationwide. The charity has substituted the live-in warden service that was free at the point of use with a visiting service shared with other organisations, with which they have to make an appointment and for which they are charged. They have also suffered escalating management charges, and a housing provider that decided to procure nationally every single service. Such a system takes away any local connection and removes the resident’s empowerment and ability to effect improvements by making a phone call or spotting the window cleaner and having a word. Even window cleaning, garden maintenance and lift maintenance are nationally procured, and the excuse given to the residents is that that is under EU law. We have investigated and that is not the case. There is a way round the problem, and EU law does not force national procurement on organisations of that size. Nevertheless, that is what residents are being told.
After I raised the issue during Prime Minister’s questions in July, a family from Folkestone approached me. Their elderly mother was a tenant in an establishment managed by Peverel, which manages a large number of housing organisations country-wide. Again, the issue was the substitution of the live-in warden system. None of the residents wanted that, but Peverel said, “We’re going to sell the flat where the warden lives because we can’t find anyone to do the work. We will donate £10,000 from the proceeds of the sale into your management fund.” That is absolutely derisory, but when the residents challenged it, Peverel turned around and said, “We are under no obligation to do this—take it or leave it.”
Endless complaints appear in the press about Peverel. One of its tactics is to use myriad service organisations of its own, including insurance companies. It then foists the delivery of services by those companies on the residents in its apartments at a charge that is higher than the market rate. That creates a conflict of interest unless there are clear rules of transparency, so that residents can get competitive tenders and ensure that they are not being overcharged for their services.
One gentleman, Neil Healey, managed to take a subsidiary company of Peverel to court over such issues, and he won a case against Solitaire Property Management. Peverel does not exclusively provide sheltered accommodation, and the picture in the paper of Mr Healey shows he is a young man—32 years old. A man of that age is perhaps better equipped to take large housing organisations to court than many of the frail older tenants who are my concern this morning.
A survey by the Bristol older people’s forum showed that more than two thirds of elderly people who live in the Bristol sheltered accommodation sector state that their quality of life is now worse than it was when there was a resident warden. Furthermore, 83% of pensioners in sheltered housing say that the services provided by their council are now worse, and 68% say their quality of life has suffered.
I am pleased to note that the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in support of this cause. Sheltered Housing UK wrote to him a month ago, putting pressure on the Government to introduce rules to ensure that residents and tenants have a right to be consulted when changes to the terms of their leasehold and tenancy agreements are proposed. In response, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote that
“lots of people who move into sheltered housing do expect a 24-hour warden…I rather like the idea Help the Aged has come up with about putting changes to warden services to a vote of affected residents…That’s the kind of good practice I hope more housing associations and councils will use.”
Certainly in Portsmouth, and I am sure elsewhere, I am concerned that a tactic is being adopted whereby companies that have been taken to court for not consulting people now consult local residents, but still leave them with the bill. In that way they dodge the political bullet for effectively withdrawing the service. I pay tribute to my constituent, Ingrid Savir, who is older than 32 but has been extremely dynamic and has spearheaded the campaign that sued Portsmouth city council.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I am most heartened by her example. I stress that many older people are aware of their rights and are determined to push them through. I am delighted to hear about such cases. The problem is that when consultation requires a majority vote—as it should do—a lot of the frailer, more elderly people in the accommodation in question can be leaned on or bullied by the housing association. That is my point.
Let me turn my attention to what can be done about that state of affairs. In the private sector, many tenants have a legally binding service contract. Most sheltered housing providers subscribe to the code of practice for the provision of retirement housing that was established by the Association of Retirement Housing Managers—ARHM. That code makes it incumbent on providers to consult leaseholders about any changes to the terms of the lease. Some charities and housing associations find ways round that code of practice, foisting service charges on to leaseholders without proper consultation, as we have heard this morning.
Leaseholders should be made explicitly aware of their right to consultation under the code of practice, and their recourse to leasehold valuation tribunals should the code be breached. The statutory elements of leaseholders’ rights—such as the right to enfranchise a lease or, as a leaseholder group, to take over the management of services, away from the housing provider—should be extended to charitable organisations and housing trusts.
In my view, such rights should also be extended to the social housing sector. Age UK argues that tenants should be given proper information about the core services offered in their housing scheme, and the terms of reference for any future changes in those services, before they move in to the retirement housing of their choice.
Tenants in sheltered housing provided by local authorities should have a statutory right to be consulted on and challenge local authority decisions that reduce or significantly vary the provision of warden support and other services. Any changes to support services should be voted on by residents, who should have a say in the most appropriate system of alternative support when changes are proposed.
I am grateful for the expertise provided by Age UK and Sheltered Housing UK. Furthermore, my local authority of Dudley—under the recent rating system, it achieved a four-star rating for all its housing services—has proved an excellent support in my constituency for leaseholders in the private sector. I would like to thank Ron Sims and Theresa Kelly for their help with some of the proposals that I put forward this morning.
I look forward to learning more about this issue from the experiences of other hon. Members present for the debate, and I hope that some of the ideas proposed will merit due consideration by the Government.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James). The minute that I saw this debate listed in the Order Paper, I felt that I had to participate. For many years, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) and I have been running a local campaign. We have formed a group called the Thanet eight. It is eight buildings with over 1,500 residents who live in flats that are owned by one company, and were originally managed by the same company—Peverel.
Those residents are by definition not young, and their objective in buying their properties was to have safe, secure and affordable homes, possibly for the rest of their lives. The reality has been different with increased charges; expensive and sometimes unnecessary renovations; a lack of consultation of residents; the attempt to block the creation of active residents associations; a reduction in services, particularly house manager support; and disproportionate penalties if a property is sold or rented.
Age UK has recently raised this matter and completed a very comprehensive report highlighting four key issues that my local residents certainly experience: unfair transfer fees when a property is sold or rented; escalating service charges, compounded by a lack of transparency about what people are paying for; very expensive rents for house manager flats—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge—which do not reflect the market value at all; and the use of companies that are owned by the management companies to undertake work or provide services on behalf of residents.
In particular, I should like the Minister and the Government to examine what I call the vertical integration model. These businesses are being run by subsidiary companies where the group company owns the majority of the companies that provide services to these residential blocks. That throws up very interesting and questionable issues. I hope that those companies’ ownership of that vertically integrated supply chain causes concern to the Office of Fair Trading. The method by which they operate the vertically integrated business model is certainly of concern to consumer groups and, as I said, has been the subject of an Age UK report.
In my experience, the freeholders and management companies, which are all owned by the same holding company, own lift maintenance companies, buildings insurance firms—mentioned by my hon. Friend—building and maintenance operators, window cleaners and internal communications fitters. That might on the surface suggest that such a company knows its business well and understands all the different aspects of running sheltered accommodation, but is that really the case or is the vertical business model precluding competition, reducing choice for residents and creating incentives for the management company to propose and sometimes impose renovations, refurbishments or additional services that residents have not requested and do not desire?
It is not just the Office of Fair Trading that needs to be concerned. If a lift is not fixed or the night warden is not there, that will lead to potentially massive bills for the public purse. I am thinking of more hospital admissions, more people falling over and so on.
I very much welcome that intervention; I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We need to consider the holistic cost—the overall cost—of how in the future we will look after people who are getting older. Many years ago I wrote a paper called “How we keep the new old young”. That will be a big challenge for us. I am referring to how we keep people mobile and independent and ensure that they have the resources to be independent for as long as possible.
I now want to talk about the emotional impact and the worries and concerns of my local residents in Thanet, who have put their life savings into these small flats and do not have other resources. There is an emotional and physical impact from their concern about what will drop through their letterbox next week from the management company telling them that they owe another £1,500. That creates more health problems and anxiety and deters older people from making the independent choice and going for what is, on paper, excellent sheltered accommodation and a structure that gives them security for the future.
I appreciate the opportunity to comment on this matter. The coalition Government are considering the removal of the mobility part of disability living allowance for people in homes. Does the hon. Lady not agree that the removal of such an award puts a financial pressure on people in homes as well? The pressure is not just physical, but financial. Being members of a caring society, as I am sure we all are, does she not agree with me that that would be a backward step?
I am talking about sheltered accommodation, not residential care, but I understand that the issue is the component of DLA that relates to mobility. Local authorities do provide those services and need to provide them to ensure greater mobility and as much independent living as possible within a care home. We need to consider carefully how we maintain independence, mobility and active life for as long as possible. I have in my constituency one of the highest percentages of people over 60 in the country. They feel that they can and should participate actively in life, but sometimes and particularly when predatory management companies are involved, they and certainly their resources are put under strain. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
I shall give an example of what has happened in my area. Initially, for some of my local buildings, expensive refurbishment projects would be commissioned by the managing agents with the justification of needing to keep the buildings in good condition and ensuring that the residents’ investment was being built on. With no comparative quotes having been produced, those refurbishment projects went ahead, incurring significant additional service charges for the residents. Yes, that was their choice, but it was on the recommendation of someone they trusted—the management agent.
As time has gone on, my local residents have stopped trusting their management agents. They have started to see a pattern as they start to question refurbishment. Now, the management companies are looking to undertake works priced just below the threshold at which they must consult the residents. Over a two-year period, a series of quite similar projects have been priced just below that threshold, so the firms can procure from their own companies at high cost and without consultation of residents. Those costs, which are passed on to residents, total thousands of pounds. The residents are elderly and often on low incomes and have no recourse.
Buildings insurance is also an interesting area. The majority of the buildings in my area that are under management with Peverel have been reinsured in the last four years—not exactly a time when property prices have been rocketing. Those properties have been revalued with increases of between 40 and 60% in the last four years. The insurance company is owned by the holding company of the management company. The premiums have been passed on to the residents. Equivalent quotes obtained by my local residents have brought down the value of the properties in the current market. Some of my residents question whether the building’s value has gone up to support those companies in their market valuation and the presentation of their assets to borrow further money to buy more residential homes.
The vertical integration of these companies, the lack in many instances of competitive tendering and the cumulative cost of small refurbishments that are just under the threshold for consultation make for a very insecure and uncertain future for many residents and must be addressed. Many people from these blocks have taken up the opportunities afforded to them under the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, but have the management companies made it easy for the blocks to self-manage? In fact, they have stood in the way of the setting up of residents groups and contested the right to manage, citing numerous barriers. My residents have ended up in tribunals and having to employ experts and lawyers. The law is there to liberate those residents, not to wrap them up in red tape or to place on them the expense of lawyers. All those things have been put in the way to thwart their right to self-manage.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge in the key points that she has put to the Government. I urge the Government to review the regulations on private retirement sector housing and to ensure that the code of conduct is properly enforced. Residents in my constituency should have access to recourse and to the rights enshrined by law. They need the future security that they and their families so deserve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) on securing this debate on an important national topic. It is important not merely because of the low level of building in this country, but because there is a serious issue about whether residents in sheltered accommodation are being cared for properly. The cases that have been described in this debate illustrate that issue.
The problem is perhaps not as acute in Herefordshire as in some other parts of the country, but it is serious and growing. We have a large elderly population that is increasing as a share of the population, and it includes an increasing number of frail people. Most of those in sheltered accommodation are cared for by Herefordshire Housing, which, after a difficult period a few years ago, has made great progress under its new leadership and reconstituted board. But all too often, sheltered accommodation is used for families who do not require it and to accommodate people with mental illness, who would be better accommodated in specialist dwellings designed for their needs.
The removal of the warden service from sheltered accommodation is a serious local issue, on which I have campaigned for three years. I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friends on that issue. The warden service is vital, not only for its early-warning service, but for the human touch that it provides for those in sheltered accommodation. There has been more than one case in which a resident has been discovered several days after they have passed away because of the lack of a regular on-site warden.
When the housing stock was transferred from the council to Herefordshire Housing, residents were given strong assurances that their rights, and specifically the warden service, would be protected. There is a general duty of care, under which the warden service is provided. Residents were therefore appalled to discover a couple of years ago that the warden service was being removed.
A very good local campaigning group was set up, called the sheltered housing tenants umbrella group. With my assistance, several members of SHTUG took Herefordshire Housing to court over the removal of the warden service. In particular, I mention Shirley Baldwin, who ran SHTUG at the time, Lil Jones and Nancy Evans, in whose name the group received legal aid to pursue the case. I am sorry to tell hon. Members that the case failed because of a technicality. A statute of limitations, which was very short at some six months, had elapsed and they had neglected to register their concern, in part because they were notified in a modest, non-public way. They had not realised that they had only six months to register their concern, and it was some time before the impact of the withdrawal of the service became clear. Although the lawsuit reached the stage of taking the advice of a silk in London, it did not go through. I am sorry to report that, because those people deserve a better deal than they are getting.
What can be done? Hon. Members have made many good suggestions in this debate and I associate myself with those. I wish to emphasise three aspects. First, there should be more vigorous enforcement of tenants’ rights by statutory agencies. Tenants should not be notified in a letter that arrives among a lot of other correspondence that such rights are being ended without proper negotiation and consultation. Such rights should not be ended in any case because of the commitments that were made at the time of the stock transfer. Tenants deserve better than to have to obtain legal aid, which does not even exist in Herefordshire for such cases. The nearest place from which legal aid can be obtained, and where I found it, is Birmingham.
Secondly, there should be proper treatment of those with mental illness. I have residents who are being driven mad by the difficult behaviour of people who require proper treatment and care. Such people should not be left in sheltered accommodation, but they are because of the general crisis in housing.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) introduced the First Reading of a Bill to protect elderly people and those in care, and to ensure that their rights are preserved. Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent an area with a large proportion of people who are coming up to retirement age—I am probably heading that way myself. Will he look at that Bill, which would go a long way towards providing the protection that he speaks about for the vulnerable people who need it?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I shall look at the proposed legislation with great interest.
My final point is that sheltered housing should be an integral part of a wider attempt to get more housing built in this country. In the past decade, there has been an enormous amount of talk about housing targets, and yet there has been the lowest rate of new housing creation in living memory. The large and increasing number of people who require sheltered accommodation are the losers in that much wider national problem.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
The House owes a debt to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) for raising a series of important issues with her characteristic sincerity and commitment. She is right that we have a sacred duty to look after the most vulnerable, and in particular those who built Britain, ensuring that they have security and dignity in retirement. No party has a monopoly on wisdom and all Governments, including the previous Government, have to reflect on the consequences of their actions. I will pose a number of questions that I hope the Minister will answer, because the issues that have been raised in this debate are of immense importance.
Everyone here takes seriously the importance of housing and support for elderly and vulnerable people, whether they live in their own home, with their family, or in supported housing, such as sheltered or extra-care schemes. The hon. Lady was right to underline the scale of supported housing in our country. The survey of English housing in 2008 showed that 7% of the retired population lives in sheltered or extra-care housing, with more than 610,000 living in sheltered accommodation. At its best, sheltered accommodation provides a sense of community, companionship and security.
I know that the debate is about more than just wardens, but I will focus for a moment on wardens. I know from my experience in my constituency that the elderly and the vulnerable speak warmly of their wardens. Wardens provide much needed support and they help with tasks, big and small, as well providing invaluable advice and support. Wardens often go that extra mile beyond the call of duty. They organise trips, activities, bingo, singing—I have even been asked to sing in one old people’s home, but I am no Pavarotti. Wardens organise supper nights, and provide a listening ear to their residents who are experiencing ill health or other troubles and need a friend in difficult times.
I have seen some remarkable examples of the good and, I have to say, a very bad example of the bad. Remarkable examples of the good, on the one hand, include Waterford Court, where I was but two weeks ago, celebrating its 10th anniversary. It is full of old soldiers and their wives and husbands, still young at heart. They very much regard themselves as the “wellderly”—the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) was right about that—and are looking forward to years of life ahead in what is an excellent community. Also, New Oscott Village is a shining beacon of what care for elderly people should look like.
On the other hand, bad examples include the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). In my constituency, one old people’s home in Kingstanding moved from on-site wardens, present seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to floating wardens and a call centre. One woman told me, in great distress, of her experience. She had had a mastectomy and at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night, her wounds burst open. She tried desperately to get help from the call centre, but was told to ring 999. She said, “But I’m soaked with blood from my breasts to my knees.” She could not make any sense of what was happening at the other end of the line and, ultimately, had to call her son, who lived three miles away, to come and get her, at 3 o’clock in the morning, to take her to hospital. Although we celebrate the examples of the outstanding in all constituencies in Britain, what the debate has highlighted is that other examples, to be frank, shame our country.
Among the developments under our own Government was an unhelpful trend in relation to wardens. I will discuss that in a moment, but first let us look at the policy framework, because it is important to where we go from here. In February 2008 the Government published “Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods: A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society”, which set out how sheltered housing is often a positive choice for older people who want to remain independent but who value that little bit of support and shelter, as well as the sense of security and community brought by sheltered housing. The paper said:
“extra care and care homes at their best can be vibrant community hubs, tackling exclusion and promoting active ageing, even if the accommodation itself is dated.”
It also said—the hon. Member for Stourbridge was absolutely right—that consultation and needs assessment are critical both to the effective management of sheltered accommodation and to reflect the wishes of service users. That was emphasised in 2007, in the Supporting People strategy paper, “Independence and Opportunity”. Central to that paper was the importance of keeping service users, in turn, at the heart of delivering housing support.
A report by Help the Aged, “Nobody’s Listening”, makes it clear that changes in support services for sheltered housing and the replacement of resident wardens by alternative service models are not new phenomena—such changes have been taking place for two decades. An independent study commissioned by the Department last year pointed to various reasons why that was the case. It found, on the one hand, that there was less demand for sheltered housing, as people tended to move into sheltered housing later in life, and, on the other hand, that a significant number of sheltered housing residents said that they did not require support services because they were defined as the active elderly. As a result, some administering authorities commissioned flexible mobile support for sheltered housing tenants, based on assessment of support needs. They extended the notion of mobile support. There were strengths in that approach, because it offered support for people in all types of tenure, but, clearly, there were weaknesses as well, because some commissioning authorities, under my party’s Government, clearly got it wrong and went too far in changing the provision of wardens in sheltered accommodation.
I will touch briefly on consultation, which has been powerfully raised, including by the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who has direct personal experience. Consultation is a vital part of any service. My experience is that, if an organisation consults properly with service users, often changes that may not be threatening are seen to be precisely that—not threatening, contentious or frightening. Consultation before changes are made is, therefore, essential. Unfortunately, too many examples of a failure to consult have been evidenced in the debate today, including successful challenges in Portsmouth and Barnet, where there was a lack of consultation, ranging from a failure to take into account the terms of leasehold arrangements to a failure to act in accordance with disability discrimination legislation.
Having acknowledged the trend under the Labour Government whereby some commissioning authorities, for all that their motives were noble, went too far, I shall now look at where we go from here. The debate must take place against the background, inevitably, of resource constraint. As I will say in conclusion, however, what the hon. Member for Stourbridge has done is to put this vital issue at centre stage in the decisions that get made in the next stages by the Government and the commissioning authorities at the sharp end.
The context in which the debate is taking place is that councils will see a 7.1% cut each year for the next four years. Supporting People funding will be cut by 11.5%, to £6 billion. Yes, it is true that an additional £2 billion of funding has been promised to social care by 2014-15, £1 billion of which will come from the NHS, but, set against that, the sheer scale of the cuts that will be made in the field of social care is immense.
We can look at examples of what is already happening in the here and now. Somerset has approved a £3 million cut in its Supporting People programme from April 2011, representing an 18% reduction on its £16.5 million budget allocation for 2010-11. Big cuts have already been made in Isle of Wight; and Cornwall is due to make a decision on, I believe, 30 November on a proposed 40% cut over three years in its overall Supporting People spending. Reports suggest that elsewhere in the country active consideration is being given to major cuts of that kind: Bournemouth, Swindon, North Somerset, Brighton and Hove, and Surrey are all considering proposed reductions of between 20% and 40%. Against that background, and in the spirit of the debate today—so nobly led by the hon. Member for Stourbridge—I would like to put a number of questions to the Minister.
My first question is about preventive support. The evidence is absolutely clear that preventive support—warden services, in particular—leads to better outcomes for service users and their families, as well as to savings in health and social services budgets. If low-level preventive funding, such as Supporting People moneys, is lost, combined with the end of ring-fencing, that is likely to cost the Government and local authorities more.
My second question relates to the redirection of funding. The Supporting People programme funds housing support services for about 1 million people, but as a result of the dramatic consequences of the reductions in expenditure that are being imposed on them, some local authorities are using it to help fund statutory social care. Does the Minister share my concern that that is likely to accelerate significantly the withdrawal of on-site warden arrangements, in favour of what is all too often an unsatisfactory roaming warden service?
My third question is about social care cuts. The initial relief at the provision of an additional £2 billion for social care by 2014-15 has evaporated in the wider context of the 26% cuts in local government revenue spending. As a result of those swingeing cuts to local government, the extra money promised will do nothing to make up for cuts to social care services. Last year, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who at the time was shadowing the Department for Communities and Local Government, said:
“it is important that ending ring-fencing does not become an excuse for phasing out funding or squeezing budgets, and that local councils do not end up getting the blame for what is, in essence, the removal of money by central Government.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 194.]
Does the Minister agree with his colleague?
My fourth question is on a matter about which hon. Members have spoken eloquently. The Sheltered Housing UK Association, a campaign group, recently wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister because he had said in a pre-election interview with Inside Housing that residents should be able to vote on whether to keep a live-in warden. We have heard that the Deputy Prime Minister has made an initial response, but can the Minister tell us whether that excellent proposal is under active consideration?
On my fifth question, the Minister signed early-day motion 60 last year, which expressed concern about reductions in funding for Supporting People services. It called on the then Government to take action to ensure that the vital service of warden-supported housing was retained, because reductions were having a
“detrimental effect upon the quality of life of many vulnerable people who rely on warden-supported housing”.
The Minister will be fully aware that the Government have announced unprecedented cuts to local government funding. What impact will those cuts have on vulnerable people, and particularly the elderly, who rely on local government services? Crucially, have the Government conducted an impact assessment of the effects on social care services of cuts to local government funding? If so, will the Minister publish it?
In conclusion, the debate has raised a number of serious questions about the treatment of residents in housing schemes and about their concerns over the changes that they face. One strength of today’s debate has been that it has celebrated the good, while expressing concern about the bad. There is concern on all sides to ensure that we maintain the support that the elderly and vulnerable are entitled to expect. I thank the hon. Member for Stourbridge once again for securing the debate, because she is right that this issue is absolutely centre stage in the debate about how we go forward in difficult times. I hope that the Minister will respond to my questions.
I am very happy to be serving under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Davies. Let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) that this has been a very worthwhile debate on an extremely important question, and I thank her very much for bringing it to the House.
My hon. Friend made some strong and effective points about the problems in her constituency. Like other Members who have raised a significant issue in the House, she has had, if not the pleasure, the experience of finding that people all over the country hope that she will become their champion and write to her accordingly. Although I am sure that she will fulfil that role very well, I hope—indeed, I am sure—that she will be able to channel her resources towards dealing with her own constituents. She and other hon. Members raised some really important questions, which I will do my best to address.
It is worth repeating, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) properly said in his balanced critique of what went before, that this matter has come before the House previously. There have been two Adjournment debates in the past 12 months or so, which were initiated by hon. Members with concerns about exactly this issue. The Sheltered Housing UK Association rightly has a strong reputation for getting its point across to right hon. and hon. Members.
Let us go back to where the Government stand on this issue. We are clear that housing needs to be there, and that the support needs of vulnerable and older people should be met wherever they live, whether in their own homes, with their family, in supported or sheltered housing, in the extra-care accommodation mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge—I note her concerns that extra-care homes may be subject in due course to the pressures that she described—or in residential care establishments.
There is a whole range of accommodation. The Government are committed to making sure that people have appropriate accommodation and the support to enable them to live in it. The coalition agreement says:
“people deserve dignity and respect in old age, and…they should be provided with the support they need.”
It also includes a specific commitment on being able to live independently in later life. It says:
“We will help elderly people live at home for longer through solutions such as home adaptations and community support programmes.”
By extension, we will ensure that arrangements are appropriate for people in sheltered accommodation, whether in the private, charitable or public sectors. The Department is looking at how we can help older people to access the practical advice, support and home adaptations that they need to stay in their homes or to move to more appropriate accommodation. We are working with developers and planners to facilitate a wider range of high-quality housing options for older people.
At the heart of what the previous Government did, and what we are continuing to do, is the Supporting People programme. The programme has been protected as far as possible in the spending review. As part of the review, we have secured £6.5 billion for Supporting People over the next four years. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington is not wrong to say that the finances are under extreme pressure or that there will be pressures on local authorities and providers, but I want him to understand that the sum being spent on Supporting People—it will be £1.6 billion this year—will still be £1.59 billion by 2015, which represents an overall reduction of just £46 million over the four years. That shows that we have a very strong commitment, in straitened times and circumstances, to ensuring that the Supporting People programme has the resources that it needs and that front-line services for vulnerable people, including residents of sheltered housing, are protected.
Figures are a little hard to come by, but something like £180 million out of the Supporting People programme goes to support for people in sheltered accommodation at present and, by everyone’s account, that is doing a good job. Hon. Members have rightly focused on the sector’s problems, and I want to discuss those in a minute, but let us not forget that there are 600,000 older people in sheltered accommodation, the huge majority of whom are happy and comfortable there and, in the traditional phrase, would not be anywhere else.
How will the Government approach the matter? We have said clearly and strongly that we believe that local authorities are best placed to identify services to meet the needs and balance the priorities in their communities. It is for local authorities to decide how best to design and commission the services that they believe are needed by all parts of the community, and to arrange for and deliver them—or enable them to be provided, perhaps by work with third sector and private sector providers. Central Government do not dictate to local authorities or service providers the details of what local services to provide or how to do it, and we do not want to be in the business of micro-managing service delivery.
That is primarily a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. I am happy to follow it up and to write to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members about progress in that respect. We should be quite clear: the Supporting People programme is non-statutory and has always been non-ring-fenced. That has allowed local authorities to draw money into it when they thought it necessary, and to use Supporting People money imaginatively and innovatively to provide good services by bolstering and reinforcing those they already had. It was never a ring-fenced fund and it still is not, and it does not cover a specific statutory duty, but I am happy to follow up on that point by writing to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.
Later this month we will publish a localism Bill to devolve greater powers to councils and to neighbourhoods and local communities. It will return to them control over housing and planning decisions and will help to set the foundation for transforming the relationship between central Government, local government, communities and individuals. The philosophy behind the Bill includes the engagement and participation of residents and communities. Several hon. Members have rightly drawn attention to the fact that in some cases providers of sheltered housing appear deliberately to have sought to frustrate or bypass such consultation and engagement. The Government regret the fact that that happens and would want it to be challenged whenever it does.
The hon. Gentleman is skilfully gliding over what he said to the House only about 10 minutes ago, which is that the Deputy Prime Minister favoured that approach; he did not give a pledge to introduce legislation, and I am certainly not going to do so. The hon. Gentleman has perhaps slightly gone beyond his very temperate approach, by trying to weave into it something that is not the case.
The localism Bill reforms, taken together, will shift power from the central state back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. They will give local people, including community groups and residents associations—and why not groups of sheltered housing residents too—more power over local government and how public money is spent in their area, and will ensure that councillors are more directly accountable to them. They will free local government from central control so that it can ensure that services are delivered according to local needs; and they will let local people drive change through a renewal of confidence in a streamlined, more efficient planning system, encouraging them to get actively involved in planning, housing and local services.
Before I return to the matter of sheltered accommodation I should perhaps mention that I probably got slightly carried away before in saying that Supporting People was never ring-fenced, as it was ring-fenced initially but the previous Government de-ring-fenced it and we have continued with that.
Sheltered accommodation, as has been mentioned, has been evolving for decades. Perhaps 30 years ago the model was somewhat institutional, and there is a hangover from that in accommodation that is really just bedsits with oversight. A decade or so ago, local authorities, including my own, went through an elaborate and sometimes painful process of upgrading their sheltered accommodation. The Help the Aged campaign report, “Nobody’s Listening”, which was published about 18 months ago, charted that progress. Part of the evolution of the way that care is provided has been a move to so-called floating support services. The reasons for that are, first, the changes in demand for sheltered housing, which have been alluded to in the debate; secondly, the fact that the standard of much sheltered accommodation is in need of improvement, which requires investment; and, thirdly, the fact that significant numbers of sheltered housing residents do not require support services. They are the “wellderly” or “active elderly”, or are described in other such phraseology. I was interested to hear about the paper entitled “How we keep the new old young” by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), and I congratulate her on her practical work.
Other factors are driving changes in the way that services are delivered, including the difficulty in recruiting resident wardens, which can be quite acute and has inhibited schemes in some places. The European working time directive somewhat constrains the hours that wardens work, so that sometimes a 24-hour live-in warden is not, in practice, as one might suppose, on duty for 24 hours seven days a week. Those are the practical realities that must be faced, alongside the direct financial constraints.
My Department receives correspondence from residents of sheltered housing complaining about issues such as being required to pay for services that they do not want. By a twist of fate, it falls to me to answer this debate at a time when I am in active correspondence with one of my groups of sheltered housing residents; they are campaigning against a 24-hour residential service, as they believe that it would not be good value for money or helpful. Perhaps the irony is completed by saying that the organisation that they are campaigning against is Peverel, which insists that they must have residential wardens. We live in a complex world where black is not always black and white is not always white.
Sheltered housing, like all other support services, cannot be immune from the wider demographic, technological and economic challenges and opportunities that we face. We need to encourage innovative ways of caring for and supporting people, so that solutions are more personalised and make the most of emerging technology. There are various ways of doing that, and it does not have to involve bad stories about call centres.
Telecare can bring substantial benefits. It can assist people to remain in their own homes, and it can reduce inappropriate admissions to hospital—although judging by the story recounted by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, that is not always the case. It can also provide cover to allow for early discharge from hospital and advance warning of deterioration in a person’s condition.
Local authorities are rightly responding to the changes in this market—although market may not be the appropriate word—in care provision. The resources available for housing-related support services are being carefully investigated at the local level, which means that local authorities are reviewing the services that they commission.
I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington that local authorities sometimes get it wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge said that 50 legal challenges are being made against 20 local authorities; and my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) said that that number might be bigger but for the legal barriers and hurdles that people had to surmount. Notwithstanding that, we should recognise that the majority of local authorities are getting on with the job. They are extending mobile support to older people in accommodation in the community, and the Supporting People programme gives them the flexibility to be innovative. Supporting People is tenure-neutral; it can be used to support people in private and charitable accommodation, and in third-sector and social housing. That is important.
What about consultation? Changes to housing-related support services should be designed to meet the assessed needs of service users, and changes to service delivery should take account of those people’s views, with proper engagement and consultation with those affected. There are well established ways of doing that.
The Centre for Housing Support has been active in identifying and sharing good practice. In addition to its code, it works in partnership with TPAS, the Tenant Participation Advisory Service. It has provided deliverers of service with its publication, “Effective Resident Involvement and Consultation in Sheltered Housing: A Good Practice Guide for Providers and Commissioners”. That is the textbook that I would want all providers to use when delivering those change processes. The code highlights the importance of the genuine involvement and engagement of service users—the people who live in the homes, the householders. Indeed, I am not sure that the phrase “service users” quite captures how important the home is to the people who live there.
Change is inevitable. Providers and commissioners need to be aware that, in preparing and reacting to change, they should involve the users of their service. They must ensure not only that the users are happy but that the changes are appropriate and that value-for-money services can be developed. The TPAS report addresses the barriers to effective engagement, and gives a number of case studies and examples of good practice.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge, for South Thanet and for Hereford and South Herefordshire and others have drawn attention to cases where that engagement is not happening. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet was eloquent in her critique of what she called the vertical integration of services provided by a particular company. It would not be appropriate for me to say a great deal about the specifics of that case, but I know that various residents’ groups have approached the Office of Fair Trading on some of those matters. We should await the outcome, and a response, before commenting further. However, if issues of substance need to be addressed in relation to private provision, the Government would obviously want to take serious account of the evidence.
When developing and commissioning services, it is important that local authorities should take account of the views and experiences not only of residents but of best practice around the country. Consultation and needs assessment are critical factors in ensuring that changes in service are well managed and reflect the wishes of users, as well as enabling local authorities to meet the needs of all service users and give them value for money.
The importance of needs assessment and consultation with service users are built into the quality assessment framework for the Supporting People programme. The QAF was introduced in 2003, and it set out the standards that are expected in the delivery of Supporting People services. It also identified methods of producing evidence of achievement. Over the past five years, it has been a successful practical tool for ensuring continuous improvement in service delivery, especially for housing-related support.
The QAF was reviewed in 2008, after running for five years, to bring it up to date and to emphasise the need for high-quality individually focused services that aim to improve the outcomes for service users. The majority of administering authorities—local authorities with responsibility for the framework—continue to use it today. Evidence shows that other local authority services, such as adult social care, have adopted the QAF as the standard tool to measure the quality of services being delivered.
We welcome the fact that we are moving away from the centrally driven, target-directed delivery of local services. It is good to see that a tool is available to administering authorities—social services authorities and others—to allow them to monitor themselves, to ensure that they are accountable to those for whom the services are provided and that their services are delivered to a good standard.
The sheltered housing sector has an independent code of practice. It was developed in consultation with practitioners and service users, and is administered by the Centre for Housing Support. That code was devised back in 1993, and its standards have been continually refined and adapted. It is a way of passporting through the QAF and was the first independent code to receive such an endorsement. The code focuses on outcomes rather than processes—not on how one gets there, exactly, but whether the service is good and whether people are happy with it. It encourages providers to create local solutions better to meet and serve the needs of the community.
I have attempted to respond to the various questions raised during the debate. The Government take seriously the matters that were rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge, which were strongly underlined and reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, backed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire and mentioned in a number of interventions. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington said, there is scope for improvement. It is not the case that the previous Government had a monopoly of wisdom on this issue, although I imagine that the hon. Gentleman would say that neither do the present Government. There is work to do and progress to be made, and it is a key issue. I hope that I have been able to show the House that the Government take the problem seriously and will be listening hard over the coming months to ensure that residents of sheltered housing get the service for which they have paid and which they thoroughly deserve.