My Lords, the Care Quality Commission, as regulator of health and adult social care services in England, is responsible for providing assurance that all care home operators, whether in the public or independent sectors, meet regulations that set essential levels of safety and quality.
I thank the noble Earl for that Answer, but it does not quite meet the background that has arisen since 30 April, when the private equity firm Terra Firma acquired Four Seasons Health Care, which is the largest elderly care provider in the UK. Given that equity firms often favour a short-term business plan model, and in the light of the collapse of Southern Cross, would the Government consider a “fit and proper person” test for care home ownership?
My Lords, I am aware that this idea is circulating. Recent events have taught us that intelligence about the market and scrutiny of providers should be better. However, we are not convinced that a “fit person” test is necessarily the right approach. Having said that, we will be setting out our proposals shortly and we will consult on those, so there will be an opportunity for the sector to input its views. We should bear in mind that anyone who registers with the CQC as a provider of care must by law be of good character and have the necessary experience. The provider is also required to notify the CQC of any convictions or cautions against them and of any voluntary insolvency arrangements involving them.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the greatest inhibitors of long-term, consistent care is funding for individual placements? I speak and declare an interest as the president of Livability, which delivers long-term care for some elderly and a large number of younger disabled people. The great difficulty is ensuring that local authorities will commit to funding in the long term at an appropriate level.
The noble Baroness is of course right, which is why it is so important that we reach what I hope will be a cross-party consensus on the future funding of long-term care and social care generally. We have committed to legislating as soon as we possibly can on that subject.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the delivery of a caring and efficient service is dependent not only on training but on character? Is it not true that throughout the health service, and not merely in this area of welfare, there has been a sad departure from reliance on something which was fundamental to the hospital service when it was invented: tender loving care? When will there be an insistence that the right sort of people are admitted to the profession of caring for the elderly and the sick, as well as on proper training?
My noble friend makes an excellent point. I expect he knows that in the selection process for nurse training, greater emphasis is now placed on the applicant’s suitability as a person to undertake caring duties. As regards healthcare assistants who may not be qualified, it is of course up to the employing organisation to make checks of that kind. We believe that to be a variable practice. We need to focus on that issue more than ever.
My Lords, as I made clear earlier, there is already a test for those people who are in charge of a care home. The CQC has procedures to verify the acceptable status of such people. Furthermore, there are very strict rules under the Financial Services Authority regulations, which require company directors to pass a “fit and proper person” test. We are not sure what added value might be conveyed by a further test, as the tests are already there.
My Lords, given the very great anxieties experienced by care home residents and their families on this issue, what steps are the Government taking now to prevent another Southern Cross situation arising, in both intelligence gathering and strengthening the regulation and oversight of the sector?
My Lords, the Government are working with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Care Quality Commission. We are gathering greater intelligence on the social care market and its major providers, which will be used to give early warning of impending problems. We will continue to meet regularly with the major care providers to discuss their trading performance, their financial situation generally and how they are addressing any issues which put pressure on their ability to continue trading.
My Lords, perhaps I may raise a technical point in relation to a situation that exists under the Companies Act where a company is threatened with financial difficulties. The noble Earl will be aware that under the Act, to continue trading is a serious offence if there is a danger—not just a certainty—that the company will not be able to meet its financial obligations. Successive departments in successive Governments have properly intervened in the interests of patients. They were probably committing a serious criminal offence. Will the Minister look at the situation so that the law may be relaxed in the interests of patients and of the community in general?
The noble Lord made a very good point. As he will know, there are existing oversight and regulatory frameworks, with the CQC regulating the quality of care and support services and local authorities overseeing local providers. The point made by the noble Lord is a major part of why the Government are engaging with the sector, as I described just now to my noble friend. The main point to stress is that under the existing system no one will be left homeless should a provider fail. In an emergency, local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation to anyone, whether they are publicly funded or self-funded, who has an urgent need for it.
My Lords, this summer the Care Quality Commission is conducting thematic inspections of dignity and nutrition in 500 care homes with nursing provision. Does the Minister agree that these will be vital in providing evidence and guidance to ensure improved standards of care? Will he assure the House that these inspections will go ahead despite the commission’s increased responsibilities and workload resulting from implementation of the Health and Social Care Act and other government policy initiatives?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right; this is very important work. I am led to understand by the CQC that the programme is due to proceed as planned. We will place a great deal of reliance on its findings. In the light of recent distressing and unfortunate stories about the absence of dignity in certain care settings and the shortcomings in care quality, it will be important to learn lessons from the CQC’s programme.