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Meals on Wheels

Volume 758: debated on Monday 19 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of elderly people who have received meals on wheels in the past year.

My Lords, the Health & Social Care Information Centre does not collect comprehensive data on numbers receiving meals; it only collects a subset of this group: those receiving meals as part of a formal package of care. I understand from the information centre that in 2013-14, 31,950 people received meals from councils with adult social services responsibilities as part of a formal care package. Some 29,605 were older people aged 65 or over.

My Lords, 220,000 fewer elderly people received meals on wheels last year than in 2010, when this Government came into office. Why?

My Lords, as I have indicated, there are a variety of reasons for this. The data collected by the information centre include only people who receive meals in their homes as part of a council-arranged formal package. They do not include informal arrangements such as the provision of meals at day centres or via daycare, or indeed those who pay the council for their meals, as many do.

My Lords, I declare an interest as patron of the National Association of Care Catering. The association recently did some research that showed that, over 10 years, the numbers of people receiving meals on wheels has gone down from 40 million to half that number. That is really very worrying. Can the Government explain whether it would be better to have a statutory requirement for someone to provide these services to the huge numbers of older and vulnerable people within the community?

My Lords, I do not recognise the figure of 40 million that the noble Baroness mentioned; perhaps she and I could confer after this Question. I think that what matters here is that those with eligible needs receive the service they require. It is up to local authorities to determine eligibility criteria, but the latest available data from ADASS show that all local authorities are setting their eligibility criteria to ensure that they meet at least critical and substantial levels of need.

My Lords, some years ago I was a chairman of social services, and many elderly people did not like the meals that came. I wonder whether that is still the position. I also wonder whether the position in hospitals is similar, as we have found that more people suffered from malnutrition after they had been in hospital than before. That happened because people could not feed themselves adequately and the maid or carer who delivered the food to them would come in and say, “Oh, you didn’t like your lunch, dear”, and take it away. Of course, they have found ways round that, but have they found ways to ensure that people are getting meals that they like, and is someone seeing that they actually eat them?

My noble friend makes a series of important points. I do not have information on how many people dislike their meals on wheels, but the fact that many purchase them must indicate that the quality of those meals in many areas is of a high standard. There is also charitable provision, which I should have mentioned as well. The context here is surely the new regime that will be ushered in by the advent of the Care Act, which builds support around the individual and their needs and preferences.

My Lords, the figures used by my noble friend Lord Touhig were obtained by freedom of information means from local authorities in England. Those figures cover years in which there was a substantial rise in the number of over-65s in the United Kingdom, yet they show a decline of about a quarter of a million in the number of people receiving meals on wheels. I repeat my noble friend’s question: why?

My Lords, I was not seeking to doubt the figures obtained through a freedom of information request; they just do not happen to be available to my department. However, it is worth noting that the data on the numbers using services also reflect longer-term trends. For example, the proportion of older people in receipt of local authority-supported social care has been declining steadily for the last 10 years. Among those receiving meals on wheels, the numbers have also been declining steadily over 10 years.

My Lords, Age UK County Durham runs an innovative scheme called “Come Eat Together”, which addresses not only the issue of older people having the right food but matters such as loneliness as well. Does the noble Earl consider that that is the sort of innovation that local authorities should bring to social care under the Care Act?

My noble friend makes an important point—that it is not only the value of the meal that is important to elderly people; it is the relief from isolation and loneliness. Many of the solutions to that lie with local authorities. However, what the Government centrally have been able to do is to raise awareness of the impact of isolation and loneliness and encourage local commissioners to tackle that. To that end we have funded a digital toolkit for local commissioners, which has been supporting them in understanding and mapping commissioning for loneliness and social isolation in their communities.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of Age Scotland. May I try to answer my noble friend’s question for the Minister? The reason why there has been such a dramatic reduction in the number of meals on wheels is the swingeing cuts imposed by the coalition Government—and, indeed, the Government of Scotland—on local authorities and voluntary organisations, and it is about time they were reversed.

My Lords, local authorities’ funding through central revenue support has indeed reduced, but spending on adult social care has been relatively protected compared with nearly all other local authority services. In cash terms, councils have reported only a small reduction in money spent on adult social care since 2010, despite the tough public funding climate. It is up to the party opposite to explain where the money would come from—if it will increase local authority spending—given that the shadow Chancellor has ruled out increasing local government spending if Labour is elected at the general election.

Perhaps I may help the Minister. Could it be due to the fact that the average cost of a single meal has gone up 22% since this Government have been in office? How do the Government justify that?

My Lords, local councils do not have to charge for meals; they may provide them free of charge or at subsidised rates if they want to. If they charge, they must—as is the case for any non-residential social care service—follow the statutory guidance. That guidance ensures that, where they do charge, the charge is consistent and fair.