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10.33 am

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief speech. I welcome the Bill, and congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) both on promoting it and on steering it successfully through its stages so far.

The question of how to pay for old age is probably one of the most difficult questions of the day. As people get older, they experience real anxiety about how they would manage if they had to go into a home: it preys on everyone's mind, in connection with themselves or elderly relatives. Indeed, they may worry about how their children will manage in the future. This is rightly a topic for political debate.

I shall not dwell on the distinction between the Government and the Opposition--between the Labour and Conservative parties--as reflected in what is sometimes described as the Chancellor's smash-and-grab raid on pension funds through the abolition of advance corporation tax. In a sense, however, that is part of an overall approach to the subject. It is important to enable people to build up capital so that they can care for themselves, and--here there should be common ground between the parties--to keep at least some of that capital to pass on to their children.

I have a particular insight, as one who was first a junior Minister in 1986, in what was then the Department of Health and Social Security. The Minister of State was one John Major, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. At that time, Conservative party policy was to increase the amount of protected capital from £3,000 to the still modest figure of £6,000, which has subsequently been increased to the £16,000 in the Bill. It must be borne in mind that that £16,000 is not wholly protected. When people's capital has dwindled to £16,000, which is probably only about half the value of a modest house--even in Sefton, in the north-west of England--they will still have to pay a substantially higher weekly sum for board and lodging in a residential old people's home.

The Bill aims to resolve what was, frankly, an abuse introduced by Sefton borough council. The ideology of those councillors was different from the ideology that I think prevails today--in the country and, I hope, in the Government, although it is their party which predominates in Sefton. I am grateful to the Government for at least moving that far.

Sefton borough council was saying that it would not provide accommodation for someone who was in need of care and attention because of the frailties of old age until that person's capital had dwindled from £16,000 to £1,500. The Bill seeks to correct that, which is why we welcome it. Let me make a point which, although rather technical, is important. Clarification of it, even on Third Reading, may assist the construction of the Act that this Bill will become, and of national assistance Acts generally. The point was highlighted by the Master of the Rolls when the Court of Appeal had to make a decision in the case involving Mrs. Blanchard.

20 Mar 1998 : Column 1534

The point is that, provided that it is clear that an old or disabled person--people may be frail for reasons other than old age--is in need of care and attention, there is no entitlement to take into account the local authority's alleged lack of resources. I accept that local authorities are under pressure.

I think that we can be sure, but I should like clarification on the point that one is not entitled to take into account the fact that a person still has £16,000 and that the amount has not dwindled to £1,500. A person who is down to £16,000 must be careful if he is in need of care and attention. He should not be told that he may spend £14,500 on looking after himself and then make another approach to the authority. Such a loophole seems to exist because the fundamental legislation, the national assistance legislation as amended from time to time, refers to people who are in need of care and attention that is not otherwise available to them.

Of course, money gives freedom and the power to purchase services. Notwithstanding the Bill's intention, it could be said that people could spend their money on caring for themselves, perhaps marginally by upping the amount of private home help. That means that they could put off going into residential accommodation for a long time and, of course, that will prolong the anxiety of the elderly and, in practice, it may force them to deplete their modest resources from £16,000 to whatever figure the relevant local authority--it may not be the one in Sefton--may set. It may not stick to £1,500.

I support the Bill and hope that it will be successful in overcoming the difficulty. I have highlighted the issue, albeit at the 11th hour on Third Reading because it is important to bring it to the attention of the House so that the Minister may comment on it. If we cannot put it right at this stage of the Bill's progress, I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to my point and will use some future Finance Bill or assistance Bill to close continuing loopholes.

10.42 am

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I fear that I have to join the Bill's promoter in apologising to the House because, if the subject is debated for the length of time that it deserves, I may not be here for the final speeches. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I have to leave early. One of my local hospitals is threatened with closure and all hon. Members will understand that such a matter requires attention from the hon. Member concerned.

We debate this important Bill against a background of quite alarming figures. The latest population estimates of mid-1996 show that the United Kingdom's population aged over 75 numbered 4,192,000. Of course, a high proportion of people who live until the age of 75 will live until they are over 90. One of the enormous difficulties for Britain's elderly is to have any idea of how long they have to budget for. They have absolutely no way--none of us has--of knowing when the asteroid will hit them, and they cannot know how much money they will need or how to apportion it.

The mean cost of residential care is £275 a week. In my part of the country, that is modest, and it is easily seen that the fear of destitution in old age is acute. Research suggests only 7 per cent. of the elderly are confident that their children will look after them. I think

20 Mar 1998 : Column 1535

that they are being unduly pessimistic because Age Concern figures show that we in this nation still look after elderly relatives. However, 90-year-olds have 65-year-old children and, at the age of 65, many people are not in particularly good health. Their capacity regularly to drive long distances to look after a parent who has moved or from whom they have moved is much impaired. Even those children who want to look after their parents are often in no position to do so.

As the Chancellor told us on Tuesday that

the demand for publicly provided residential care at the full cost to the taxpayer will rise sharply. I can tell the Minister that, among the plethora of reviews that have been undertaken by the Government, the tangled and now entirely historically based relationship between national assistance Acts, national health service Acts and community care Acts needs to be completely overhauled.

There is something ridiculous about the conflict between the regulations governing people in residential care, those in long-term hospital care or those who are being looked after in the community. For example, a person in a private residential home probably has to pay for medication, but a person in a long-term national health service bed does not, although he may be almost exactly the same kind of person. The anomaly that the Bill tries to correct clearly points up the fact that the way in which we provide residential care needs to be wholly re-examined. Given a sufficiency of respite care and the ability to take it regularly, many elderly people could survive satisfactorily where they would prefer to survive--in their own homes. However, the elasticity of social services provision is so tight that that is now difficult to provide.

I also view with considerable concern the explosion in child care. Whatever my personal views about the sense of paying people to look after other people's children and denying the parents the kind of income that would allow them to look after the children themselves, which would be much better for them, the pool of carers from whom the elderly would expect support will be drained by an explosion in exactly the same kind of people being recruited into the rather more appealing task of looking after children. That will cause considerable anxiety to everybody in the field, and I hope that the Government are taking that on board.

There is another enormous difficulty and a real conundrum. For the past 75 years, we have encouraged people--by mortgage tax relief and a host of other devices, intended and unintended--to view their homes as their principal stock of value. That is not the case in many other European countries. In many countries of mainland Europe, people rent accommodation and keep their savings in some other form, but in Britain the biggest store of value is in the home. Many people have bought their houses with the specific intention of having them as stores of value against a rainy day, but when the rainy day comes, they have become so emotionally attached to what they no longer call a house but now call their home that they are deeply resentful of any suggestion of moving out.

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