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Hospital Beds: Availability

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 9 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the number of hospital beds currently occupied by persons who could be discharged.

My Lords, the most recently published figures—for the last Thursday of December 2016—reported that 6,191 people who were occupying hospital beds were ready to return home or transfer to another form of care.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am extremely puzzled because the official NHS figures I have been looking at suggest that, in November, there were 200,000 people blocking beds. What is more significant, all the experts say that the actual number of bed-blockers is three times the size of the official figure. Bed-blocking means that people are not given the best possible care and beds are blocked for others who could be admitted. Surely we have to solve this problem quickly.

My Lords, the figures that the noble Lord is referring to are across the whole month. He may be aware that new figures have been published today, which show that an increasing proportion of delayed transfers is due to the availability of social care packages. He will also know that this reflects the changing nature of the patient demographic, which is becoming older and frailer. I agree with him that this needs addressing urgently, which is why the Government took action in the Autumn Statement to increase social care funding. We need to address the wide variation in the rate of delayed discharge from local authority to local authority. As the Prime Minister has said, in the long run we need a more sustainable solution.

My Lords, although all Governments have made great strides in recent years in combining health and social care, is it not now obvious that the only way to complete this process is to have a unified budget?

I thank my noble friend for that question. He is quite right that integration of services is the main thrust of policy and has been under successive Governments. This is happening in two ways. First, the Better Care Fund is pooling health and social care budgets at local authority level in order to achieve what he is asking for. Also, NHS England is producing sustainability and transformation plans, several of which are moving towards what is called an accountable care organisation, whereby a single grouping takes responsibility for all the healthcare needs of a population, rather than it being split into different services.

My Lords, integration is of course very important, but has the Minister ever met anybody in the health service who does not believe that you will never fix the pressures in the health service until you put more money into social care? That means helping areas with low-value properties, not just those with high-value properties, such as in leafy Surrey.

The noble Baroness is of course quite right about the need for more money. I re-emphasise that an additional £7 billion or more for social care is going to councils during this Parliament. Councils have the ability to raise council tax, although the leverage obviously varies from place to place. This is why the Better Care Fund was created—to provide extra help to areas that do not get the same income from council tax increases as the better-off places.

My Lords, a year ago, the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a report which showed that about one-fifth of adult mental health beds were occupied by people who were ready for discharge or who should not have been admitted in the first place. They were only admitted because there were no adequate facilities in the community. Could the Minister tell us what the figure is today and what is being done about mental health specifically?

The noble Lord is quite right to raise the issue of mental health. I do not have the specific figure with me but I will write to him with it. We know that there has been a historic disparity between the two services. This was recognised by the Prime Minister in a very important speech she gave a few weeks ago, setting out some of the ways in which the Government are doing more on this. However, there is clearly a lot more to do.

What is the situation of people providing care at home on behalf of councils? Many carers I know are called out at 10 or 11 at night to receive someone who has just been sent home from hospital. However, they are not really trained themselves; they are trained only by the care agency. Is it not time that we provided them with proper training, particularly as so many of them have come from the Philippines and other such places and we are not sure what the future holds for them?

My noble friend is quite right that there has been an increasing prevalence of domiciliary care, which involves carers caring for patients in their own homes. Making sure that those patients can get home at a good time that works for them and those who support them is clearly a critical part of dealing with this delayed discharge issue.

My Lords, the Minister was talking about care workers rather than carers. He has focused on social care but Nuffield Trust research shows that the proportion of discharge delays due to the unavailability of social care has grown by 84% in six years, but also that 57% of delays occurred because of problems in the NHS itself. This is because of a lack of local NHS community or rehabilitation services, and of the availability of home support therapies or access to diagnostic and other services. Are STPs going to be able to tackle this, given the scale of cuts that will need to be made? Is the Minister confident that last year’s NAO report, which warned that the Department of Health and NHS England rely “too easily” on differing local circumstances as a “catch-all excuse” for not improving NHS performance, is being addressed?

The noble Baroness is quite right that there is increasing pressure on the health service. There have been 3.5 million more hospital admissions in the last 10 years and 2.4 million more A&E attendances in the last five years, so there is huge extra pressure. The number of acute beds has been dropping for a long time but at a slower rate in more recent years. Clearly, making sure that the right level of community care is available—step-down or interim care between hospital and home—will be incredibly important, particularly with a growing and ageing population.

My Lords, surely enough is enough. Is it not high time for an unfettered look again at the health service—bottom-up rather than top-down, and therefore undertaken not by a royal commission, perhaps, but by an independent body such as the Academy of Medical Sciences?

A number of investigations and reviews into the future of health and social care are taking place. I quite agree with the noble Lord that a royal commission is not necessary. What we all need to do in government and through the arm’s-length bodies involved in healthcare is to make sure that we are providing the 2.7 million staff, who are doing a brilliant job every day in supporting our health and care services, with the money and assistance they need to continue to deliver world-class healthcare.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not so much a question of old people getting older, because old people have always got older; rather, the difference in the last 30 years is the grotesque increase in the number of young people getting fatter and fatter?

There are some long-term public health challenges, involving not just obesity but alcohol. But there is also good news: fewer people are smoking. I think that sometimes, young people—I do not know if I count any more—

No? I do here. If we look at what are sometimes called transgressive behaviours among the under-20s—obesity, smoking, drinking and so on—they seem a lot healthier and more sensible than I was in my youth.