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Care Homes

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2011

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect the interests of residents of care homes, such as those operated by Southern Cross.

My Lords, the Government will take whatever action is necessary to protect the welfare of care home residents. Southern Cross has plans in place to restructure its business and is keeping the Government updated on progress. We will continue to keep in close touch with the situation and will work with local authorities, the Care Quality Commission and others to ensure that there is an effective response, which delivers protection to everyone affected.

I thank the noble Earl for that information. Given the latest revelations that Southern Cross traded the care of older people for short-term profit and that the Care Quality Commission so woefully failed to come to the help of suffering people in a home in Bristol, can I urge him to take the most urgent steps as soon as possible to relieve the suffering of people who are old, frail and dependent, and who are suffering much neglect?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Baroness’s concerns will be echoed throughout the House. We have seen distressing reports in recent days of the treatment of certain patients in private hospitals, but the worry over Southern Cross relates much more to its financial situation and the future of its residents. I can assure the noble Baroness that we are taking this situation very seriously. We are in touch, as I have said, with all the relevant parties—and have been for the last several months. We are making sure that everybody is aware of their responsibilities in this area, not least towards the residents concerned. As regards Southern Cross, we are now in a critical period when restructuring is being explored, and we wish those efforts well.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problems besetting Southern Cross are an object lesson in the dangers of market failure attending the privatisation of public services?

My Lords, I do not agree with that. For many years, successive Governments have relied upon private care providers in social care. In general, this has been entirely satisfactory. It has given people wide choice in the care available and Governments have encouraged that. Financial issues for one provider—albeit a major one, I concede—do not undermine the entire principle of independent care provision.

Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the original principle, stated to be the main aim of all these reforms, is unchanged in spite of the very necessary talks he is having with several different bodies? Is it still to be the case that nothing is more important than the care, treatment and curing of the patient, and the patient’s dignity and comfort, including being fed in hospital?

I am grateful to my noble friend. That is entirely the aim of the modernisation programme for the NHS that we have laid out. It must be a much more patient-centred and user-centred service. As regards Southern Cross, we have said that there will be effective protection for the residents involved; no one will lose out. We are clear that we are putting the interests of residents first.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, on the wind-up of CSCI—which he will recall because he was involved in the debate—we were given absolute assurances that the new successor body, the CQC, would target with random and unannounced visits all those care institutions in the United Kingdom where it was thought that people might be at risk? In so far as Southern Cross had a very bad track record and the CQC has failed to fulfil that promise, should not people at the top of the new body—the CQC—now consider their positions and, indeed, resign?

My Lords, that is a rather harsh suggestion regarding Southern Cross. The noble Lord will know that care providers must demonstrate to the CQC that they have the financial resources needed to continue to provide services of the required quality. Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from this episode with Southern Cross, which we all hope will resolve itself successfully. I am sure the CQC will take on board the lessons. From the briefing that I have had on the financial model that Southern Cross adopted, it is extraordinarily complex even for an expert to understand. We need to get that right. I know that my right honourable and honourable colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be looking in general at business ownership and the issues surrounding that to see whether there are actions that we can take to prevent this kind of thing happening again.

My Lords, with respect to Winterbourne View, could the Minister comment on why so much public money is being spent on placing people with learning disabilities in private hospitals, when government policy is to support such people in the community?

My Lords, that falls a little way outside the Question on care homes and Southern Cross. I am sure the noble Baroness knows that Winterbourne View is a private hospital with completely different commissioning arrangements. However, I should be happy to write to her. A Written Ministerial Statement that sets out the full position on Winterbourne View is being put down in Hansard today.

My Lords, do the Government know how many of Southern Cross’s 31,000 residents are self-funders and therefore entitled only to information and advice? How many of them receive state care and are therefore entitled to alternative provision? Given the uneven geographical distribution of Southern Cross’s homes, do the Government know whether there will be any local authorities with no residential care provision should Southern Cross fail?

On my noble friend’s last point, there is a national surplus of care home beds—the figure I have here is some 50,000. Therefore, there is, to my knowledge, in no area a shortage of beds. We are dealing here with a series of local markets. The point that I emphasised earlier remains important. Should it come to the closure of a care home—an event of which we should have reasonable notice if it happens—we will ensure that those in that care home are properly looked after.

My Lords, does the Minister actually think that a Written Ministerial Statement is sufficient to deal with the gravity of the treatment of the learning disabled in Winterbourne View care home, as shown on the “Panorama” programme, although I realise that that is not the subject of this Question? I agree with him that it is absurd to suggest that there is no role for private, voluntary, mutual and social enterprise providers in social care. How will the Minister ensure, therefore, that in the private sector—none of these things can happen in any of the other sectors—regulation is extended to cover the financial stability, including asset stripping, of organisations which provide these vital services for thousands of elderly people? I invite him to agree with me that it is very distasteful indeed that older people’s care should be regarded as a commodity to be traded.

My Lords, I cannot help but agree with the noble Baroness’s last comment. I am sure she will know that we have embarked on a wide-ranging programme of reform of social care. We are considering the Law Commission’s recommendations for modernising social care law, and the report of the Commission on Funding of Care and Support is imminent. As I have said, many lessons have to be learnt from the events of recent weeks. We will want to reflect on them as part of our wider reform agenda. The business model that underpins many of these issues is a legitimate area for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to be looking at, although it will do so in a general rather than specific sense in relation to Southern Cross.