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Mr. Milburn: That is true. It is the Secretary of State's function. We have had a consultation. We are considering carefully what the care home sector and others--those representing residents in care homes--have had to say, and then we shall make our decisions.

The National Care Standards Commission will be responsible first of all for regulating the full range of social care services. The commission will regulate the 30,000 care homes in this country, accommodating nearly half a million people. That will include, for the first time, care homes run by local authorities, which have until now been exempt. In providing for a national, independent regulation system, as promised in our election manifesto, we will remove the inconsistency and inefficiencies of the current system. Instead of the 250 different authorities responsible for regulating care homes, there will be one national body, providing a much more coherent and consistent service, to the benefit of both care home owners and their residents. For the first time, too, care provided to people in their own homes will be subject to statutory regulation.

Until now there has never been a regulatory system to ensure that as the care home sector grows, it provides proper standards of care and does not put vulnerable people at risk. I believe that this measure will command widespread support.

The Bill also breaks new ground by providing that private and voluntary hospitals will, for the first time ever in this country, be subject to a proper, tough and effective system of regulation. Until now, private hospitals have escaped proper scrutiny of their standards, and patients have had precious little redress when things went wrong. That is wrong, and this Bill will put it right.

People, wherever they receive their health care services, deserve to have the highest standards of care. That is why, following consultation, we will set out new requirements and standards that every private hospital will have to meet. For the first time, there will be a statutory independent complaints system for those using private health facilities. Inspection, and, where necessary, enforcement action will be carried out by expert inspectors dedicated within the commission to regulating health care, including private hospitals and other private health care facilities.

Concerns were expressed in the other place that private health care would not receive its due attention from the National Care Standards Commission because of the commission's broad range of regulatory responsibilities. That is wrong. Private hospitals will be under the spotlight as never before. They will get more than their fair share of

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attention from the commission. We will therefore be seeking to remove the amendment made in the other place that would hamstring the National Care Standards Commission's powers over private hospitals. Instead, we will table amendments to enable joint working, where that is appropriate, between the National Care Standards Commission and the Commission for Health Improvement.

Such joint working is important. As I said earlier, if it is in the interests of the NHS, and to the benefit of NHS patients, to use private health care facilities to carry out NHS treatment, one thing is absolutely essential: that quality of care, expertise of staff and standards of clinical facilities are up to scratch. The Bill will make sure that they are.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will the National Care Standards Commission guarantee that the suspected widespread over-prescription in care homes for the elderly of medicinal drugs, particularly neuroleptics, will be placed under proper control, with independent scrutiny from outside homes and from outside those prescribing to the homes?

Mr. Milburn: I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern about those issues, which he has raised with me on several occasions. The commission will certainly be able to look at some of these areas. In particular, it will need to look--I am sure that the Committee dealing with the Bill will want to explore this in detail--at processes for administering drugs in care homes. That might partially address some of my hon. Friend's broader concerns about neuroleptics.

I referred earlier to the shocking cases in which children were abused by the very people who were supposed to care for them. The National Care Standards Commission will also have significant responsibilities for safeguarding children. All types of children's homes will be regulated and subjected to rigorous inspections. This, again, will include local authority homes which are currently exempt. It will also include small private children's homes for fewer than four children.

That loophole in the law has long been considered a scandal, and rightly so. We are determined to fix it at the earliest opportunity, so the Bill includes a provision amending the Children Act 1989 to remove the exemption for small children's homes, which we intend to bring into force as soon as possible after Royal Assent. That will mean that even before the other provisions of the Bill are brought into force, and before the National Care Standards Commission is fully up and running, the existing regulatory system will apply to small children's homes for the first time and for as long as local authorities continue to have regulatory responsibilities.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and welcome his comments about children. He hinted at a time scale, but can he be more specific? The Protection of Children Bill, which I had the honour to take through the House last year, became an Act last July but is still not operable. That is upsetting to me. I was told at the time that it was likely to be operable this summer. I have received a variety of answers to questions put by me and others in the Chamber, which suggest that the date of implementation is late

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summer, autumn, early winter, or some time next year perhaps. The issue is serious, and I would value urgent action.

Mr. Milburn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work in taking the Protection of Children Bill--now an Act--through the House. I know that it commanded a great deal of support. She will be pleased to know that the Care Standards Bill will establish an equivalent measure applying to people who are unsuitable to work with vulnerable adults.

I know that my hon. Friend remains concerned about the timetable for the implementation of her own Bill, or Act, as it is now. Discussions are taking place between my Department and other Departments, and we intend to enact it as quickly as we can. I do not have a firm date for her, but I shall write to her as soon as possible and let her know the time scale that we have in mind.

In recognition of its role in safeguarding children, the National Care Standards Commission will appoint a children's rights director, whose job it will be to ensure that children's rights and welfare are at the heart of all its responsibilities for regulating children's services. The director will fulfil a crucial function by always being available for people to turn to when they have concerns or suspicions about what may be happening in a children's home or other service.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Over the past three years, under his predecessor and my right hon. Friend, the Department of Health has set high standards for the participation and involvement of young people in care in policy making and in monitoring services. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that will continue under the new system?

Mr. Milburn: Yes, of course. The most important contrast that my hon. Friend could have drawn is the difference between the present regime and the previous one. So many of the scandals that are only now coming to light and being properly scrutinised occurred when the regulatory system in force was inherently and structurally flawed.

The measures that we are introducing are long overdue. By and large, they are not matters of party political contention, so the issue for the Opposition is why, if they had 18 years in government to start taking action, they did not get on and do it. It is easy to sit on the Opposition Benches and say that everything is fine and the Government's proposals are fantastic. It is a damn sight harder to find the legislative time and to commit the resources to make the change, which is what the Government are doing. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for his work to enhance safeguards for children.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced recently, there will be a parallel post in Wales: the children's commissioner. We will amend the Bill to effect that.

I know that there are many in the country and in the House who would call for the commissioner to have a remit for all children, not just those in children's homes or receiving other care services. The provisions in the Bill

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for a children's rights director in England, and a children's commissioner in Wales, will set up powerful new posts whose holders will champion the interests of children who are most in need of someone to speak up for them. It is those children who most need a voice, and for that reason I believe that, for the purposes of the Bill, those provisions are the right ones.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Milburn: I have given way once already, but very well.


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