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Mr. Forth: In spite of the eloquence of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), to which I pay willing tribute, I confess that he has not carried me very far with him. I am worried about the extent to which the hon. Gentleman believes that the act or preparation of planning would resolve so many questions.

I confess at the outset that I have an instinctive unease about planning per se. I am now old enough to remember the national plan back in 1964, when George Brown told us that it would be the salvation of the nation. That did not last long, and I am surprised to hear that new Labour--to which, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman would want to attach himself--still holds that rather naive belief in the benefits of planning.

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Setting that general objection to one side, I remain unclear, despite the pains that the hon. Gentleman took to explain his objectives following the intervention by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), about quite what he thinks the planning process would do. His ideas seemed to encompass the provision of information, which is not what I would regard as the normal objective of planning. On the other hand, they seemed to be about reassuring carers, which plans might or might not do. Thirdly, they seemed to be about setting out transparently the objectives of authorities and the way in which they proposed to meet the Bill's requirements.

The third of those objectives is the most legitimate and useful, but the hon. Gentleman's new clause does not make it explicit. In fact, it says very little, and it does not properly elucidate or pin down the many objectives that he set out. If we were to support the new clause--I would find great difficulty in doing so--I cannot see that it would add anything to the Bill's objectives or the proper provision of services to carers. It is too general, and would have to have been much more specific to be of any use.

Is the hon. Gentleman trying to reassure carers? Is he trying to reassure the Government by meeting the objectives either of their guidelines or regulations? I could see some point in that, but I am not sure that that was his objective. He hinted that the new clause would facilitate effective co-operation between the authority and, say, local health service bodies. There might be some point to that, but there was a lack of focus in what the hon. Gentleman said and in the simple wording of his new clause.

Responsibility for preparing the plan would clearly lie with the authority--at least, I think that that is clear. We need not question who in the authority would have to do that, but there is the time-honoured question of cost. The hon. Gentleman, understandably, did not deal with that, but we all know that planning carries costs. We must ask whether we believe that sufficient additional benefit--added value, in the ghastly modern jargon--would arise to justify the cost. Would not the money be better spent more directly on providing the services that are the Bill's objective? Unless we have a more accurate idea of the cost of the process suggested in the new clause, it is difficult to judge those points. Unless I were to be much

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more persuaded of the benefits, my feeling would be that the cost would be an unacceptable additional administrative burden on the local authority.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman and I sense a certain inconsistency in his argument. On the one hand, he says that the costs of preparing the plan are too great; that we must know what we are doing; and that it might be better to spend the money directly. On the other, he has suggested that we must know what we would be spending the money on but, in order to know that, the plan would have to have been prepared. There is a certain circularity in the right hon. Gentleman's arguments.

Mr. Forth: I see what the hon. Gentleman is driving at, but spending the money and preparing the plan would occur anyway. That would not be additional, as that process already happens. The new clause suggests a burdensome additional administrative and bureaucratic process, which would cost even more. Plans do not come free, as anyone with even limited local authority experience will know. Whatever additional benefits may accrue from the process suggested by the hon. Member for Harrow, West--I have my doubts about them--I suspect that the costs will not be justified. The risk is that that additional cost would come from moneys that could be more directly used to fulfil the purposes of the Bill.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: May I take the right hon. Gentleman back a year? The requirement that went with additional money provided through the carers special grant was that each English local authority had to produce a carers plan. The vast majority did so, increasing the partnership with health authorities and increasing services. If they could do that last year, surely they could do it in future.

Mr. Forth: That puzzles me even more. Back when the hon. Gentleman opened his remarks on the new clause, he set out in detail what already happened, and then seemed to want more, or the same again, or a reiteration of what we do, or some such thing. For that reason, the entire new clause seems otiose. He has just reinforced my doubts by telling us that all this is more or less done already.

Mr. Thomas: The carers plan was produced because a specific requirement for it was linked to the money from the Government for the carers special grant. That was a one-off requirement. Unless my new clause is successful, there will be no reason why local authorities will have to produce a carers plan in future. I contend simply that if it was successful last year, we should roll on that success to future years.

Mr. Forth: That intervention raises several further questions. First, if the process was successful, authorities would presumably--at least, possibly--want to follow it again. Secondly, the extent to which the process was deemed to be a success would in itself affect whether it should be repeated. It is implicit in the way in which the

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Bill's ethos has been debated at every stage that we all assume a large amount of good will on the part of the Government and the local authorities.

Mr. Hutton: As a condition of this year's use of the carers grant, local authorities will be required to provide an updated version of their original plans. The planning obligation still features as part of the special grant regime.

Mr. Forth: That enables me to curtail my remarks, the House will he happy to hear. That seems to lay the whole matter to rest. I shall move quickly on to my concluding remarks, which relate to what the Minister has said.

I assume that, as there is a requirement for a plan, there is also a requirement to ensure the plans are satisfactorily and usefully drawn up. While the hon. Member for Harrow, West was speaking, it occurred to me that there was no provision in his remarks for any quality assurance. The process seemed unsatisfactorily loose, and I should like to hear from the Minister--following his extremely helpful intervention--an assurance that the process was satisfactorily carried out last year, and that mechanisms are in place, involving his officials or guidelines and the authorities who draw up the plans, to establish that the plans have a proper use and do much, if not all, of what the hon. Member for Harrow, West wanted. Can the Minister assure us that they would provide added value to the support and assistance that would be given to carers by the Bill? That is the main outstanding question.

Mr. Barron: I do not wish to speak for long. The Minister's recent intervention on the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) goes some way to meeting my concerns. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) for raising the matter, but I would find it difficult to support him. His speech was extremely well researched, and he made good points on several issues, particularly on hospital discharge and how carers, or people in the primary health care sector, gain information on the issues. Occasionally, they do not receive a service that is as good as today's information technology could provide. We should consider that issue.

Although I agree with many of the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West, I point out that, in the 1980s, my family had to deal with someone who had Alzheimer's disease, when there was little medical analysis of her condition. We cared for her within the family for many years; it was only at her death that she was found to have the disease. I do not criticise anyone involved, but the support services from the local authority and the health authority were pretty poor. Needs were not well met. That has changed, even though it is not enough to satisfy all individuals and organisations--I accept that entirely. However, matters have improved. During the past two decades, care for such people has become much better.

One of the points on which I disagree with my hon. Friend is that new clause 2 would give responsibility for drawing up the carers plan to the local authority. I am not attacking local authorities. I am a great believer in local democracy and in decisions on people's lives being taken as locally as possible. When we draw up legislation in

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this place, we do not know all the answers to people's needs. We may think that we do, but often we do not--as we find out later.

The important point is that the matter goes much wider than local authorities. The health authority has a large role in helping carers and people with disabilities to manage their lives in general. To suggest--as the new clause does--that local authorities should carry out that task on their own is not a good way forward.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us--as he observed in his intervention--that there are other ways to handle the matter. Although I am sympathetic to care plans--as we all should be--because they give people rights, they also raise expectations. At present, there are different levels of care in local authorities and in health authorities. My fear is that, if we ask authorities to produce local care plans, those differences could be compounded and justified. In order to assist carers, what we should be doing is ensuring that best practice is observed throughout the system; we should improve matters for people and those being cared for as much as we can. To ask local authorities to draw up and justify care plans under the current system is probably not the best way to do that. We need improvements throughout the country rather than merely justifying the current system--as I suspect would be the effect of new clause 2.


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