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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 50A(1)(a),

Question agreed to.



Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 94F(1)(b) (Scottish Grand Committee (statutory instruments)),

    That the Special Grant Report on Community Care Special Grant and Supplementary Mismatch Scheme Grant for 1996-97 be referred to the Scottish Grand Committee.--[Mr. Ottaway.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees),

Question agreed to.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 513


Gun Control

10.42 pm

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): I am honoured to present tonight a petition organised by the Evening Echo, the only daily local newspaper in south-east Essex. The petition was signed by 1,088 people, but I know that it represents the views of most of the public in so far as it seeks to tighten gun laws generally. In detail, the petition may be flawed: in spirit, it is praiseworthy, and has my full support. On this issue, the Evening Echo is to be congratulated on the great public service it has done.

The terms of the petition are:

To lie upon the Table.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 514

Social Services (Buckinghamshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Knapman.]

10.43 pm

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham): I am grateful for the opportunity for an Adjournment debate because I fear that social services in Buckinghamshire are coming under severe strain and that a similar pattern may repeat itself across the country. What is emerging is not just a financial but a structural problem.

The Government are providing more money each year for social services and community care, but the demand created by the 1990 community care legislation in particular is ever-increasing. When that demand overtakes the supply of new money, local authorities have to ration services. We reach the crazy situation in which a steady increase in services and expenditure is perceived by the electorate as cuts. In Buckingham, for example, there is a day centre run by the Red Cross and funded by the social services department. The value of that kind of facility to elderly people forced to spend much of their time at home is clear, yet it is threatened with a reduced service to three days a week.

I have met representatives of Mencap, who are concerned about the effect of rationing on the elderly disabled. Like all hon. Members, I have seen evidence of the strain placed on local social services by increased family breakdown and have been appalled by the expense and complexity of caring for a single delinquent child or young adult, to keep him or her ending up an even more expensive guest in one of Her Majesty's prisons.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar with the problem of explaining the paradox whereby we spend ever more and are accused of making cuts. I have the same difficulty explaining that paradox to my constituents--they are not very interested in the paradox. All they know is that the threat to their day centre, services and the mentally infirm are real.

Politically, a chain reaction follows. Again, the process will be familiar to my hon. Friend the Minister. Members of Parliament are asked to intervene and come under pressure in the local press. We ask the county council what is going on. The council says that it has run out of money and needs to make, in this case, 9 per cent. cuts. I take up the problem with the Minister, who tells me that £57 million has been made available for community services in Buckinghamshire next year--10 per cent. more than in 1995-96. I find it hard to explain to constituents that their day centre will deliver a reduced service because the Government have given the council an increase three times the rate of inflation, so back I go to the council. Of course things turn out to be more complex than they seem.

I will not go over the council's detailed finances. We have asked for and been given a breakdown of its expenditure, and we have had full and frank discussions. We have gone into matters raised in the Minister's reply to me--for which I am grateful--such as the need for efficiency savings. We have also looked at administration costs and why they appear to be rising. The reason seems to be investment in information technology in the pursuit of more efficiency. Above all, we have looked at rising demand.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 515

I came away with the overriding impression that in the provision of social services and community care, we have embarked on an open-ended programme that will ultimately be unsustainable for any Government under any reasonable projection of the national income. Even if, for the sake of argument, Buckinghamshire county council could have managed things better, the consequent savings would have been a speck when seen against relentlessly growing demand. Friend as I am of efficiency savings, I am a friend also of logic. I fail to see how the council can be expected to produce money from such savings year by year until the trump of doom. There must come a point when the service in question is working efficiently and diminishing returns set in. It will not have escaped the Minister's notice that the American guru of downsizing in business has recently repented of his earlier enthusiasms.

I have noted in that connection the speeches by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), which fail to promise more money for the national health service and pretend that new resources can materialise from administration cuts alone--a line echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). There are strange alliances in the House. I am all for cutting administration to the bone but I do not see how the future of the service can be guaranteed in the long run by offcuts from administration. Even if NHS administrative costs, for example, are halved that would yield less than£1 billion from a £34 billion budget--some of which, as a result, might be spent less efficiently. The point may be reached where the same is true of care in the community.

The easiest way out for me is to blame the Government and to ask for more money. That would get me the reputation of a caring person, but it would prove the opposite. I would be guilty of gesture politics--which is to say, of cynicism. Asking for more money from a Government in debt to the tune of £25 billion would be more than cynical, it would be a charade.

I would, of course, welcome more money for Buckinghamshire county council social services if there is any to spare in the Minister's budget. But the same goes for education, where some of our primary classes are too big, or for the NHS, where, despite improvements, there are still delays in operations. In all those areas, the Government are already spending more.

The central question is: how are we to deal with infinite demand? Two simple facts that I read in the local government management board report on community care for 1995 illustrate the point: the number of admissions to residential and nursing homes has increased by nearly a quarter since 1993-94--a mere two years ago. Even more striking, the average net cost to the local authority of an intensive package of non-residential services now exceeds the average net cost of a residential home for old people. In other words, whether they are in or out of residential care, there is no escape from the cost of caring for the elderly.

To put things even more simply, I do not understand where the system is going. I can see how things can continue for a while longer as they are, but eventually the strains will show, under whatever Government. I have noted with interest the warnings of the shadow social security spokesman, who will not spend more than is

4 Jun 1996 : Column 516

already being spent. We are in a vicious circle. I suspect that there is a great deal of self-deception involved on all sides and much postponing of the day of reckoning. That day, I believe, will involve more targeting of expenditure on those in the greatest need.

That brings me to the main question that I wish to put to the Minister, who will be relieved that, for once, I really will not ask him for more money. The Government have guided local authorities towards a policy of looking for a person-based approach to assess clients' needs. Buckinghamshire county council has been looking at the possibility of replacing an item-by-item flat-rate charge with a more streamlined approach--streamlined obviously being a euphemism for variable charges based, of course, on ability to pay.

Despite new home care charges introduced in 1995, individuals with the financial means to contribute a reasonable amount towards their care continue to be charged the same amount as those who are among the least well-off in the community. That means that well-off people are getting subsidised services and that that subsidy is financed, at least in part, through the taxes paid by people in work who may be less well-off than themselves. Where is the equity in that?

One inhibition to moving away from a flat-rate approach is the fear of legal challenge or recourse to the ombudsman. Would it not be of help to county councils such as Buckinghamshire if the Government recognised the facts about the costs of community care and introduced legislation to make ability to pay a criterion for the delivery of services. Unless the Government can promise that the spiral of spending will increase indefinitely--I doubt that they can--I see no other solution. Politically, I see very clearly that there would be a cost, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to imagine the political cost of headlines in the local newspapers, saying that day centres and services to the elderly disabled are under the axe.

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