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Mr. Paterson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chaytor: I would very much like to, but I am afraid that, in view of the time, I cannot.

Mr. William Ross: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I correct in thinking that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in believing that he has to finish his speech by 10 pm? Surely he could resume it tomorrow.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): I think that we will take one day at a time.

Mr. Chaytor: I am grateful for the suggestion that I might be able to finish tomorrow, but I am happy to finish at 10 o'clock precisely.

I welcome the changes in vehicle excise duty and the introduction of a lower rate for smaller vehicles. I especially welcome the fact that, buried deep in the Budget documents, is the proposal that, as of next year, we will have a fully fledged variable excise duty, related to vehicles' emissions ratings. That is long overdue. We should not only reduce the duty for lower-emission vehicles, but increase it for higher-emission vehicles.

The motor car is a key indicator of affluence, and one of the most effective means of introducing fairer taxation is to recognise that better-off people have bigger cars and drive further in them, while poorer people have either no cars or small old cars and do not drive many miles.

We need to be more confident in our support for environmental taxation. The Government need to be up-front in explaining that we are going through an historical transition, away from a tax system that is almost entirely dependent on taxes on labour and towards a tax system that becomes increasingly dependent on taxes on pollution and the depletion of natural resources. That trend is welcome and the public as a whole would appreciate it if it were clearly pointed out to them. We do not need to be reserved or shy. We should stand up for environmental taxation--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

PETITIONS

DNA Samples

10 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): This petition arises from the murder on Christmas day 1995 of 18-year-old Louise Smith from my constituency. In the course of the police investigation into her murder, 4,600 local men gave DNA samples to the police to assist in the capture of her murderer. Those DNA samples, freely given, had to be destroyed by law, even though those who gave them would have consented to their retention for use in future investigations. Therefore, the petition, signed by 9,266 residents of Northavon and others:


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    The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons introduce legislation to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to allow the retention of such DNA profiles where consent for such retention is granted by those submitting a specimen.


    And the petitioners remain, etc.

To lie upon the Table.

Rural Road Hauliers

10.1 pm

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): I wish to present a petition, which I strongly support, on behalf of Mr. J. G. Jordan and 156 other rural road hauliers from in and around Shrewsbury and Shropshire. While greatly appreciating the general help that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has given road hauliers today in his Budget, the petitioners request:


To lie upon the Table.

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Meath Home

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

10.2 pm

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I appreciate the opportunity to raise in the House a matter that is not only of great concern in my constituency but a cause of profound disquiet across the charitable sector. Today, in the Budget statement, the Chancellor said that he wanted us to be a giving society and that this should be a giving year. My concern is that many of those involved in the provision of long-term care feel more like giving up than going on, because of the Government's refusal to take seriously, and act on, their concerns.

The Minister may have heard the BBC "Today" programme in January, when Stewart Etherington of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations said that two out of three voluntary organisations providing care were subsidising the local authority and more and more of them were having to spend their scarce money in investing in legal fees to obtain their entitlement. The Minister may also be aware of the letter from the Prime Minister to Mr. Norman Thody of the Disabilities Trust. Mr. Thody had complained, with the all-party disablement group, about the intolerable position in which so many providers of care find themselves. The Prime Minister's letter stated:


Interestingly, the letter continued:


    "You may also be interested to see a leaflet issued in October by the Charity Commission, 'Charities and Contracts--CC37'. The leaflet gives practical guidance to trustees and staff thinking of entering into contracts with public bodies to provide services on behalf of those public bodies in return for payment."

That document makes it clear that it is not the job of the charitable sector to subsidise the state and the delivery of services under the National Assistance Act 1948. It states:


    "We recognise that there will be gaps in some services, because the public bodies required to provide the services at public expense are unwilling or unable to pay for them. We strongly advise charities not to enter into contracts to deliver a service that a public body is required to provide unless the public body pays the economic cost. A charity may offer, as part of the contract, to raise the standard of a service above the standard required of, and paid for by, the public body. But we advise that a charity does not commit itself in a contract to 'fill the gap' in a service which is not funded up to the standard which the public body is required to provide."

That is precisely the situation at Meath, and at other voluntary homes across the country, such as the Cheshire homes in my constituency. The Meath home is a magnificent organisation. It was founded more than 100 years ago by Mary Jane, Countess of Meath. It is the house in which General James Oglethorpe lived. As well as being one of my predecessors as Member of Parliament in 1722, he went, in his spare time, to the United States, where he founded Georgia, before he returned to his parliamentary duties.

The Meath home was always enlightened in its traditions. In 1892, when the home was dedicated by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Albany, the amount of

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care and rehabilitation for people suffering fromepilepsy was moderate. The home was enlightened, but developments in medical science and in styles of care have ensured that it has kept pace. It is highly regarded and extremely popular.

The Countess of Meath's approach was also enlightened. She


It was her


    "wish that it should be a Home of Comfort, all being made as bright and cheerful as possible."

Time has moved on. There are 64 residents who have epilepsy and associated disabilities. There are day care and community-based activities for people from the local community and the region with similar disabilities. Up to 23 local authorities have placed residents there. It is the only residential home of its type south of the Thames. It caters for individuals with a wide range of disabilities, and it offers clients a home for as long as they wish. Each client has an individual care package which is regularly reviewed.

The home has been highly commended by the registration officer as


Grateful letters are received regularly from parents and others. I could not speak too highly of the Meath home, whether as the local Member of Parliament or--I must declare this interest--as a patron of the home.

I have observed a deteriorating situation in recent years, however. The Registered Homes Act 1984 was enacted at the time when I became a Member of Parliament. It drove standards up and it required more and more ofresidential institutions. The Community Care (Residential Accommodation) Act 1992 changed the relationship once again, however, with substantial sums of money being transferred to local authorities.

I do not intend to labour long and hard about the deplorable settlement that Surrey social services has received this year. The Meath home's argument is not essentially with Surrey, which has been as reasonable and co-operative as it can be. Suffice it to say that the national average increase in personal social services is 5.8 per cent. this year. Half the local authorities received more than 7 per cent.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health will know from colleagues in the north, whom he meets regularly, that they are grateful for their settlements. However, Surrey received 2.36 per cent., although it requires at least 7.5 per cent. to stand still. Surrey is an area with a high cost of living, and there are great charges for staff and others. The working time directive and various other measures have compounded the difficulties at Meath.

It is not Surrey that Meath home is having to take to the small claims division of the High Court, however. The problems with Birmingham, Haringey, Enfield and a great number of the other authorities which have residents at the Meath home are quite appalling. The time, effort and frustration spent on securing payment for residents who are being given a value-for-money, quality home for life is unacceptable. I ask the Minister to intervene.

I shall go over some of the background issues, because it is a reflection of the desperation felt in the voluntary sector that so many voluntary bodies are now taking legal

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advice on what steps to take next. Several cases that have reached the courts make clear the obligations and rights involved, even though going to court is never a step that anyone would choose to take, because of the invidious nature of doing so.

Under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948, a local authority is required to provide residential accommodation for the elderly or disabled adults in their area who require it. There are two recent cases that are relevant. In 1997, the House of Lords decision in the case of Barry stated, that in assessing the needs of a person for services to be provided under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the local authority could take into account its own financial resources.

In the Court of Appeal decision in the case of Sefton, which was made shortly after the Barry decision,Lord Woolf said that he did not see the resources argument as playing a significant role in deciding whether a person required residential accommodation. He emphasised that, once a local authority has concluded that the person concerned requires residential accommodation not otherwise available to him, the accommodation must be provided and the local authority cannot plead lack of resources in argument for failing to do so.

The similarity under both Acts and both decisions is that, once the assessment has been made, the accommodation or services must be provided, irrespective of the local authority's resources. It follows that, if the local authority cannot provide them itself, it must pay someone else to do so; and it cannot limit the payment by arguments based on its lack of resources.

In 1994, the High Court decision in the case of Avon was to the effect that the local authority must also take into account the psychological needs and wishes of the person, even if the local authority has to pay much more than it wants to for more expensive accommodation. That may make it extremely difficult for a local authority to shift residents when they have become established in a home.

There is no desire to have those issues subject to endless judicial review, but I have to warn the Minister that, unless there is assistance, action and intervention from the centre, that is the route down which all the voluntary homes will have to go.

Several other recent legislative measures are relevant. Although it does not come into force until March 2000, the Competition Act 1998 prohibits conduct on the part of one of more undertakings that amounts to an abuse of a dominant position in the market, and there are severe penalties for breaching the prohibition. Conduct may be an abuse if it consists of indirectly or directly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices, or other unfair trading conditions.

The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 imposes a fierce 16 per cent. interest charge on the late payment of debts by large businesses, including local authorities, to providers that are small businesses. That may not be immediately relevant to the Meath home, which has 80 employees, rather than 50 or fewer, but the Act does reflect how seriously all those involved are having to take the current problems.

My understanding of contracts is that the court will generally enforce a contract in accordance with its terms unless it is unlawful. Where the contract says nothing about the price to be charged, or there is no written contract,

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the court is likely to assess the fees on what is fair and reasonable. It will not pay attention to extraneous factors such as the parties' financial circumstances. In other words, we are moving close to judicial review territory, which is not an outcome to which either the Minister or those involved in care would turn lightly.

I have several practical suggestions which I hope the Minister will follow up. Although the matter is not one that solely concerns a home for people with epilepsy, there are specific issues relating to epilepsy. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) in the Chamber; she has a particular interest in Chalfont, and I was delighted to visit the centre there when I was Secretary of State for Health. The centres at St. Piers, Lingfield and at St. Elizabeth in Hertfordshire and in Liverpool would give an account similar to that of the Meath home. The members of the all-party group on epilepsy group are extremely vexed and hope to accompany representatives of the Joint Epilepsy Council to visit the Minister, so that he is made aware of the complexity of the issues relating to long-term care for people with epilepsy.

However, there are more general and widespread issues concerning the delivery of voluntary care. My requests to the Minister are as follows. First and foremost, a standard, simplified form of contract should be adopted which would reduce the current appalling bureaucratic waste of time and money. A huge amount of staff time and energy is spent chasing 23 different local authorities, each of which has its own contract. It is time to offer central guidance and good practice. Frankly, I had hoped to achieve that aim when I was with the Department. The assurance always was that local authorities would simplify the matter themselves, but they have not and they will not, and they need a central steer.

Secondly, authorities must be stopped from using their dominant position in the market in breach of the Competition Act, which is driving many homes out of business, by requiring all contracts to provide that the authority will pay a proper price under contract for the services that its clients receive rather than imposing a price arbitrarily. The contracts must contain a mechanism for independent mediation or arbitration in the event of a dispute over fees or other issues. It is appalling that homes must threaten to reject a resident. The Meath home has never done that, but other homes have reached that stage before local authorities have taken their concerns seriously.

Thirdly, the Government must stop authorities flouting the court decisions in the Sefton and Avon cases by claiming that lack of finance precludes them from paying a proper and reasonable price for those in residential care under section 21.

Fourthly, the Government must indemnify trustees of unincorporated and other charities against personal liability for redundancies or losses arising from failure of authorities to pay a proper price for services.

Fifthly, the Government must extend the scope of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act so that it covers not just small businesses but all voluntary and private providers that have contracts with local authorities.

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Sixthly, the Government must ensure that local authorities receive central Government funding to enable them to meet their statutory obligations to the disabled and others under the National Assistance Act 1948. I will not labour the Surrey point again here, but I am delighted to see the Opposition health and social services spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), in the Chamber. He, too, represents a Surrey constituency, and shares in my predicament.

Seventhly, the Government must ensure that adoption of the compact on relations between the Government and the voluntary and community sector, which was launched last November, is made to work effectively at local level.

This is a matter of profound concern. Our traditions of charity and philanthropy in this country are second to none. The trustees, chairman John Jeffrey and chief executive Eleanor Lochner at the Meath home are outstanding, philanthropic, responsible and enlightened people. The Government's refusal to act is putting an appalling strain on all concerned. A decision cannot await the royal commission on long-term funding, which evidently the Government have kicked into touch. I have given the Minister seven practical suggestions and I hope that he will deliver on them.


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