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Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): My hon. Friend brings news to the debate. Hon. Members will recall that, before Christmas, we were talking about £25 million-worth of balances. My hon. Friend may not be aware of it, but Essex county council responded in my local newspaper to our joint request to release the balances. I have the report in front of me, but I will summarise it.
The council agreed that £25 million was a large sum, but it said that it needed the money for various contingencies. They said that if it was a very bad winter there would be major problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) and I were brought up in the foothills of the Pennines, where winters can be a bit nippy. We can tell the House that one can get an awful lot of snow shovels for £25 million. One can also get an awful lot of care for £25 million. We want to see some care delivered to our constituents.
Column 255I quote from a letter dated 6 January from David Brackenbury, the chief executive of Southend trust hospital:
"Essex County Council Social Services Department are experiencing budgeting problems . . . The current position is that we have 24 patients who have been assessed as needing social care support and being fully capable of being discharged from hospital who have not been discharged simply because Social Services have refused to provide the appropriate package of care on financial grounds. This is an escalating position which started in late November and is growing at the rate of 2 or 3 patients per week."
That results in the phenomenon of bed blocking, and blocked beds are lost beds.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon): Is my hon. Friend aware that on Monday I visited the casualty unit at Colchester general hospital, where I was informed that staff were unable to admit patients into beds because they could not discharge geriatric patients who were occupying those beds, due to lack of community care? The problem is already arising as a result of mismanagement by Essex county council.
Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. While we are talking about bed blocking, is he aware that, in Southend, Essex county council care homes that were renovated recently at great expense were closed in November due to lack of funds? My constituents wrote to me saying that they were closed due to lack of Government funding. I wrote to the director of social services at Chelmsford, and he confirmed that it was not lack of Government funding, which had been adequate; it was simply overspending by the Liberal -Labour council.
Dr. Spink: Those two interventions prove my case. It is not just social service client groups that are suffering from Labour and Liberal mismanagement. It is not just the taxpayers in Essex; it is everyone in Essex who may have the misfortune of needing hospital care over the coming months. We shall all suffer as a result of Labour and Liberal mismanagement.
Castle Point borough council had budgeting difficulties in the early 1990s, when budgets were overspent by £2.4 million.
The budget overspend took place without the councillors' knowledge, and was not a result of profligate policies, as was the case in Essex. The borough treasurer moved funds between various accounts quite improperly. He covered up the problem, and left the borough council's employment as a result.
Castle Point councillors-- [Interruption.] yes, they were Tory councillors--and council staff then had to repair the situation. The councillors took a cut in their allowances--they did the honourable thing-- and council
Column 256staff took a 6 per cent. cut in their wages. Everyone, from the chief executive right down to the cleaner, took a pay cut. Castle Point councillors took every penny from their reserves and spent the money to support service levels, as Essex should do. They also cut staff numbers dramatically. They took all that difficult action to minimise the impact.
Mr. Mackinlay rose --
Dr. Spink: They took difficult action to minimise the impact of the budgetary problem on the people they represented. Unlike Castle Point councillors, the Essex Labour and Liberal councillors have not done the honourable thing. Indeed, they are increasing social service management salaries and wages by a massive amount. The people of Essex resent their double standards and hypocrisy.
When Castle Point had a budgeting difficulty, members of the Labour and Liberal parties said that, as £2.4 million had been lost, the councillors involved should resign and repay the money. Now that Labour and Liberal councillors have lost £8.5 million, their political friends-- and the councillors themselves--have forgotten all about those calls for resignations and repayment. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) persists in making seated interventions. Let us hear him call for the resignation of his colleagues in Essex. He will not do so.
Labour now even has the gall to rub salt in the wounds of vulnerable people by making unnecessary cuts in services, but refusing to use its ample balance of £28 million. That is shameful, but typical of Labour councillors.
Conservative Councillor Joe Pike speaks for the people of Essex. He really cares, and he is competent--unlike the Labour chairman of social services, who, sadly, is floundering. He is following a hard-left, dogmatic, socialist agenda. That is the major problem in Essex. Brin Jones of Langdon Hills has explained that the Labour chairman of social services wasted the extra money given by the Government on hare-brained schemes.
Those daft socialist schemes, which are robbing vulnerable people in Essex, include a blanket home care charging policy that does not take into account ability to pay. That scheme resulted in a loss of £1.25 million. The council sent young thugs and burglars abroad on holiday; they were sent on Center Parc holidays, accompanied by very happy and enormously grateful social workers. Incidentally, the lucky social workers did not always do their job of supervising the young criminals very well: one of those young criminals spent a few days on a robbery spree in a Center Parc, totally out of control. Essex spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money sending council officers abroad--to Canada, for instance--to recruit expensive foreign social workers to tell us Essex people how to run our lives. As if we British people were not capable of caring for ourselves, our old and frail people and our children! As if we British were so impoverished of skills, abilities and enthusiasm that we needed to go begging abroad to fill simple social worker jobs! What rubbish. In their expensive foreign recruitment
Column 257policy, Labour and Liberal councillors reveal their abject contempt for the people of Essex--and the people of Essex will show what they think of them at the next election.
Then there is the £368,000 that Essex Labour councillors have spent on new office-based social service posts. Those are not posts at the sharp end of caring for real people; they are very questionable posts, which some would describe as politically correct, relating to the European Union social chapter. Essex is even spending £100,000 on employing psychologists. It might be said that that is the job of social services, but the psychologists are intended not to help vulnerable people in Essex but to help social services staff themselves--managers and social workers who claim to be highly stressed. If Essex social service managers and workers are so unstable that they require professional psychologists to help them, it is little wonder that they get it so wrong so often, and waste so much taxpayers' money.
Let me give just one example--there are many--of social services' wasting money by their errors. A child was taken into care in my constituency at a cost of over £100,000. When the case came to court, Essex social services were severely criticised by the judge, who told them that they had no reason, cause or right to remove the child. The child was immediately restored to his parent.
Dr. Spink: The director of social services told me that the social services department had been given a reasonable amount of money by the Government. But he also said that social services had experienced budgeting difficulties-- [Interruption.] --and there had been an overspend-- [Interruption.]
The director assured me that this mismanagement would not recur next year. He subsequently wrote a four-page article in the Evening Echo of 20 December, mentioning nowhere that Essex had received inadequate money from the Government--he did not even hint at it. He simply referred to an overspend on the budget which Essex had incurred, and the need to get the budget "back on track". During his meeting with me, he informed me that last year's social services budget had been underspent, so this year he had followed the Labour and Liberal policy of "stimulating spending" in the private sector. Presumably he did this to force up spending, because the council did not want to underspend for a second year, thinking, rightly, that that would run the risk of the budget being cut. That is Labour and Liberal policy: take as much as they can from people and spend it profligately.
The director also told me that Essex had followed a policy of awarding contracts to the best tender from the private sector for home placements. Most other county councils capped costs at county council level, plus a small
Column 258additional percentage. The director said that this was perhaps a wrong policy, which would be reconsidered in future, and that it had certainly caused a haemorrhaging of funds from the county council. Finally, I want to concentrate on caring, which is what this debate is all about. I quote the director's own memorandum of 8 November: "Some people will not get all the care that they are assessed as requiring".
I believe that this policy may put the council outside its statutory obligations to my vulnerable constituents. It certainly puts socialist and Liberal councillors outside their moral obligations to their electorate.
I therefore call on the Labour and Liberal parties in Essex to use a small part of our reserves--it is our money, and the £28 million is ample for the purpose--to help vulnerable people this year. They should also cut the number of jobs in management and administration, and cut salaries, too. I suggest that they cut them by 6 per cent.--the Castle Point precedent. But they must make no cuts at all at the sharp end of caring.
It is disgraceful that not a single Liberal Member has come to the Chamber for tonight's debate. That just shows how much they care. I give way now to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess).
Mr. David Amess (Basildon): My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) has done the House, Essex and the country a great service by describing in graphic detail the consequences when the two socialist parties, Labour and the alliance, share a political bed. People suffer.
What the socialists in Essex have done is disgraceful. I have suggested before that they should resign because of their incompetence. If they are not prepared to resign--I have looked into these procedures--I shall attempt to activate a process that will lead to the impeachment of these county councillors. Lord Melville was impeached, and I see no reason not to call on those procedures again if the councillors are not prepared to resign.
It is well known that our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had the privilege of visiting my constituency last spring, when he also visited one of the finest hospitals in the country--Basildon hospital, where he opened two new wards in the new maternity unit. He would be horrified to see the evil consequences of socialist mismanagement in Essex.
While we still had a good Conservative council in Essex, in 1993, there was an agreed procedure for the assessment of the care in the community needs of hospital patients who were ready for discharge. In October 1994, however, the Essex social services department took the unilateral decision to review its approach to meeting the community care needs of patients as a result of overspending in October. What incompetence. It had overspent only half way through the year. No one was consulted about the decision. As a result of mismanagement, there are 77 beds--
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) gave way to the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). You did not call the hon. Member for Basildon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I am correct.
Mr. Amess: As a result of Essex county council's mismanagement, there are 77 beds blocked in Basildon. That is having enormous repercussions for treatment in the accident and emergency unit and the way that patients are being cared for. Socialist county councillors in Essex and socialist Members should be ashamed of themselves in view of the anxiety that is being caused to many of our constituents in Essex.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will share our message, which was so eloquently delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, and that socialist county councillors in Essex will resign, so that we can return to good, sensible Conservative control of Essex county council.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis): My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) has led a positive cavalry charge for common sense in community care for his constituents and for the people of Essex generally. With him have ridden my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Mr. Amess), for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for Rochford (Dr. Clark).
I acknowledge also the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich (Mr. Sproat), for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has looked on. Also present has been my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton), the Leader of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has been in his place. Convention does not permit him to participate, but he has spoken, telephoned and written to me on behalf of his constituents on this important subject.
Our song tonight is one of a successful policy that has been marred by poor local implementation. Community care is one of the Government's great success stories. It is popular with the public, who are flocking to apply for its benefits. It is saluted by all experts, all observers and all parties. It has been acknowledged by every independent monitor to have got off to a good start. Local authorities asked for and were given responsibility for the policy's implementation, and on the whole they have done well. That has been in no small part due to the generous funding that the Government have
Column 260provided for the early years of the new policy. It is for local authorities, which welcomed the introduction of the reforms, to exercise good financial control to ensure that they deliver good quality, cost-effective services through the greatly increased resources that have been made available.
That is not only my view for it is the view of the independent and authoritative Audit Commission. In its report it warned of the need for better financial control to handle fluctuations in demand and to ensure that the financial consequences of past commitments are fully understood. Significantly, it called on local councils to make better use of independent sector provision, which is often better in quality and cost than state provision. That is vital if more flexible services, often linked to devolved budgets, are ready to take root. As the Audit Commission rightly says, the large sums involved must be handled with maximum efficiency and effectiveness to provide the best possible services.
We must take to heart too the lessons set out in today's Audit Commission report, "Paying the Piper", which shows the potential for savings of about £500 million a year if local government managed its pay bill better. The Audit Commission points out that £500 million could be saved without cutting front-line services. That is a lot of money, which could be available for services such as community care in Essex as in any other authority in this country.
I believe that we have funded community care fairly and responsibly, and nowhere is that more true than in Essex. When I hear that Essex socialist and Liberal councillors are complaining about a lack of resources, I thank heaven that, last May, my electors in Battersea ensured the continuation of a Conservative council in Wandsworth. What are the inadequate resources? A few hundred thousand pounds? A couple of million? One or 2 per cent. above inflation? Or has there been a cut? No, there has been a massive increase of 22 per cent. this year for Essex in the total social services allocation, and an extra £32 million.
In 1991, Essex had social services resources of £89.54 million. This year, it has £174.89 million. Next year, it will have £192.35 million. Essex has gained in cash terms and in real terms. It gained £3 million from our changes to the distribution of the special transitional grant. It gained £6.2 million from the review of the standard spending assessment. In other words, Essex's slice of the national cake is £9.2 million higher this year than it would have been under the old allocation formula. Essex is not a loser. Let me tell my hon. Friends, I have some sympathy with the director of social services in Essex when I read the report that he wrote for the social services committee, which, coincidentally, met today. As I understand it, he identified pressures on his budget of some £1.5 million to £1.9 million, and currently projects an overspend of some £1.4 million for this year. He seems to be taking a number of prudent measures to reduce that pressure. I must ask my hon. Friends, who must ask their elected councillors in Essex: why does he have such pressures? He does not appear to be helped by the policies being pursued by his political masters. Let me give some examples; my hon. Friends have given others.
Column 261I understand that one of the first things that the new county administration did on coming into office was to introduce a blanket charge for home care of some £4.25 per week, regardless of how many hours' service was provided. I understand that it is estimated that that change alone has probably lost the council some £1.25 million in income.
Secondly, there has been an increase in bureaucracy, with the appointment of administrative staff to the tune of some £368,000. Thirdly, the council seems to have stopped reviewing its homes and selling off those that are not up to standard to reinvest in the social services budget. If, as I suspect, that is a symptom of a reluctance to use the independent sector, which frequently gives better value for money, more choice and more flexibility to individual users, that is regrettable and short-sighted. Fourthly, I am informed that the unwillingness to do business with the independent sector is even more marked in relation to domiciliary and day care, where there appears to be a dogmatic preference for the in-house services.
Those are the policies that give social services a bad name. They give poor value for money. I wonder how many of the new county councillors will go out and explain to elderly and vulnerable people in Essex, who are looking to them for help and support, that the projected expenditure in 1994-95 on support services is likely to be £1.3 million above the original budget, whereas, by chance, an almost identical amount seems to have been taken out of field work services and adult residential care for disabled and mentally ill people.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point for his excellent speech and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon for his. I am not sure that I can promise him the impeachment. I am not sure, even with my right hon.
Column 262Friend the Leader of the House present, that I would know the procedures on which the House might embark if it were even to consider that.
I tell my hon. Friends to take back to the people of Essex the Government's commitment to care for those in need. Reassure them that we have put our money where our policy is for community care. Remind them that its implementation is the responsibility of the county councillors whom they elected. Tell them the truth, the facts and the figures.
Tell the people of Essex the truth about the resources that the Government have provided and the way in which those resources are being managed by the elected councillors. Tell them about the priorities of those councillors who put bureaucracy before services and dogma before people in need. Tell them that, if Essex is not delivering on its social services, the fault lies within Essex and at the doors of the leaders of their county council, and invite the people of Essex to hold those leaders to account.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I am grateful to be called briefly to make one specific comment. I am surprised that the Minister has made no reference to the fact that, as I understand it, in January 1993 his Department expressed concern about the lack of preparation of Essex county council social services department for the community care changes. Will he confirm that point, say why that concern was expressed and say whether it is true that, at that stage, the Department of Health threatened to move in directly to manage the community care changes in Essex, at a time when I understand that the Conservatives were in control of Essex county council?
Mr. Bowis: What I confirm is that many local authorities sought and received assistance, advice and guidance at the time of the implementation of the policy, and, at the time of it coming into force, it was up and running in Essex as elsewhere. What we are talking about tonight is the way in which the massive increase in resources that the Government have provided for the county of Essex has not been provided for community care and the people in need of such care.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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