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Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble): Is my hon. Friend aware that, at the same time, the county council was prepared to close a home called Meadowcroft in my constituency which provided superb care for young

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women who would not otherwise get the sort of care that they needed, in favour of keeping open a home in Liverpool--outside the county council area? The closure has caused great distress to many of my constituents and many of those associated with Meadowcroft, at the same time as wasting the sort of money that my hon. Friend has mentioned in the context of one case.

Mr. Elletson: I have heard of the case that my hon. Friend mentions. It is an equally disgraceful example of the misallocation of resources.

Perhaps the main priority of the social services department is to fund the ever-increasing numbers of administrators and bureaucrats in county hall. In the last financial year the social services department employed 203 extra members of staff. That was undoubtedly to deal with the appalling chaos that the department has created by its mismanagement of the assessment procedures. What is even more ironic--this whole sorry tale is a web of ironies--having taken on all the extra staff, the council now finds that it cannot pay them to do anything. I am sure that my hon. Friends will have noticed that today's Lancashire Evening Post tells us that social services workers are being told not to visit clients because the county council cannot afford their mileage.

The worst damage being done is to the people who could make a real success of care in the community-- those in the private sector and the voluntary services. Lancashire county council has consistently favoured placement of clients in council-run residential homes over placement in independently run homes, even though the private sector can provide the same or a better quality of service at a lower price. Many of my colleagues have joined me in correspondence with the Lancashire Care Association, which represents more than 400 independent care providers across the county. Its members employ more than 15,000 staff and care for more than 10,000 people.

The Lancashire Care Association tells me that the county council social services department has a written policy that all domiciliary services should be offered in-house before being offered to the private sector. If that is true, it is absolutely disgraceful. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the social services inspectorate fully investigates that claim as early as possible.

Let us take a moment to consider the financial implications of Lancashire county council's policy. The cost of placements in, for example, part III social services homes, is £100 per week more than placements in the private sector. The cost of council-run domiciliary services ranges between £11.20 and £17 an hour, but all private sector services are priced between £5.75 and £6 per hour, which is a massive saving on in-house costs.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Is that not a case for the district auditor?

Mr. Elletson: My hon. Friend has a good point. It is clear that substantial savings could be made if the council made better use of the private sector. Possibly as much as £10 million a year in the residential care sector and £4.5 million in the domiciliary care sector could be saved, yet the council appears to have no intention of using the private care sector. When the chairman of the social services committee, Councillor Mrs. Humble, took part in a programme on a local radio station and was asked by members of the Lancashire Care Association about the

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possibility of buying more private non-residential care services, she told them--wait for it, my hon. Friends will not believe it--that she was not prepared to put local authority staff jobs in jeopardy.

Does her concern for local authority bureaucrats justify such a prolific waste of taxpayer's money? Why does she not care about the jobs of workers in the private sector? What is wrong with them? Perhaps she should start thinking about the 15,000 employees of the various members of the Lancashire Care Association, who do a fantastic job, which day by day she makes more difficult.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Elletson: No, because I have given way a record five times in an Adjournment debate.

Lancashire social services department has issued its community care plan for 1997-97, which shows that costly in-house services will continue to be favoured. While that policy continues, the private sector struggles to remain solvent and service users' choices are severely restricted.

An integral part of the reforms was the requirement that a large percentage of the available funds would be spent on residential, day or domiciliary services, provided by the private and voluntary sector. That was to ensure that authorities could not build monopoly empires of their own and to encourage the growth of a healthy, energetic private sector, which was ready to meet the challenge of care in the community, with high-quality, cost-effective care packages.

The new system was designed to encourage local authorities to contract services out and to make more use of the independent sector. That clearly has not happened in Lancashire. Private carers are being forced out of business and service users are being driven into the clutches of Lancashire county council. That is the very opposite of everything for which we hoped from care in the community, and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider carefully the amounts that the county council is spending in the private sector and ask the social services inspectorate to consider whether that really meets the objectives of care in the community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for agreeing to reply to the debate. I know that he has been consistently bombarded with complaints about Lancashire county council and that he might feel that his hands are tied. Nevertheless, the situation in Lancashire is now so chaotic that it merits his special attention and a determined effort by the Government to intervene and protect service users and providers.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and my hon. Friends may find some small amount of black humour in this final twist of irony. They may have heard that the leader of Lancashire county council, Councillor Louise Ellman, has been selected for a so-called safe Labour seat on Merseyside and hopes to join us here on these green Benches. I hear my hon. Friends asking who will replace her as the leader of the Labour group on Lancashire county council and I think I heard the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) mention a name.

Why, it is none other than the author of this great disaster. Step forward the woman who has presided over that colossal orgy of incompetence--none other than the

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chairman of the social services committee, Councillor Mrs. Joan Humble. I just hope that the people of Lancashire understand what a nightmare of bureaucracy, sloppy management and cynicism they will face if she ever gets control of the rest of Lancashire's services.

10.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) for introducing this short debate on Lancashire's social services and congratulate him on bringing with him the Lancashire light infantry from Ribble Valley, Blackpool, South, Fylde, South Ribble, Wyre and, indeed, from Lancaster. They are light on their feet, as well as infantry in his support.

In most parts of the country, community care is a success story. We have been moving on with our plans, through our community care development programme. Our Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill was introduced in another place last week. In April, we will be moving through our community care charters and, from April, the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 will come into force, giving carers a legal right to have their views and circumstances taken into account when the person being cared for receives a community care assessment.

The common thread running through all those developments is that they are designed to increase user and carer choice and control. They are all examples of way in which the Government are pushing forward the implementation of the community care reforms to get us closer to achieving fully the aims of "Caring for People".

We are committed to providing people with increased choice in the type of service that they receive and in the way in which the services are delivered.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre): I apologise for asking a question so early in my hon. Friend's speech. He well knows that, a couple of months after the start of care in the community, nearly three years ago, I told him about what was going on in Lancashire. I fully understand that, at the time, he felt that he had to wait a little longer to discover whether it was true. On the ground, we can now see the suffering of many constituents--my own and those of other hon. Members in Lancashire, as a result of three years of incompetent management. There must be a way for central Government to intervene. If there is not, it is a sad day for the people of Lancashire who, need the care to which they are entitled.

Mr. Bowis: I am grateful for that intervention. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will try to respond to the points that he and my other hon. Friends have made.

It is disturbing to hear of cases where the involvement of users and carers, and the possibility of choice, is being denied. It is right to involve user and carers, listen to what they say and take note of it, to give them choices wherever possible, and to ensure that they know what choices they have.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North mentioned the case of Geraldine Robinson. I am grateful to him for letting me have information about her. He has explained that Geraldine Robinson and her parents are upset at the way in which Lancashire has carried out

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assessments and reassessments and are concerned that her care package may be reduced. Local authorities have the responsibility for assessing people's needs and deciding what services are appropriate to meet those needs. We have advised local authorities to carry out reviews of assessment systematically and regularly. We have not said how often reviews should take place or exactly how they should be done because the appropriate frequency and level of review will vary from case to case, depending on individual circumstances.

I understand that Miss Robinson's father lodged a complaint with the social services department about the way that it was carrying out its reviews. As a result, it was agreed that an assessment interview should be carried out by someone who had had no previous contact with Miss Robinson. I am told that that interview took place on Tuesday of last week and that Lancashire has not to date made any proposal to alter her care package as a result of that assessment. Clearly, Lancashire should conduct its reviews in a way which not only meets its service requirements but which is sensitive to Miss Robinson's situation and views. I intend to ask my officials to look into the current position on this case, and I shall come back to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North on that.

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