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3.8 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): It is perhaps worth making one point in reply to the speech by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who mentioned private owners' capital. I remind him that much public-sector capital--£10 billion, at least--was provided.

Mr. MacGregor indicated assent.

Mr. Hinchliffe: I think that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that point.

I welcome the Bill, which has been a long time coming. What is particularly exciting is that, today, in a debate on community care, we have a time-limit on speeches--usually, I am able to speak in these debates for half an hour and no one grumbles. We now have interest in the subject that we have not had before, and I commend the Government for generating that interest. They tackled an issue that has long needed to be tackled.

Many hon. Members in the Chamber deserve commendation for their contribution to the Bill, not least the ministerial team. However, many hon. Members--Back Benchers and former Ministers--have contributed quite remarkably to bringing the Bill together, and I commend them. It is a great honour to follow my very good and right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who is still held in the greatest affection in God's own county. To me, London has always been a strange place, full of--with apologies to my hon. Friends from London--odd people.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is also held in high regard in London. This may be the first time in 20 years that the issue has been addressed, but Bills do not come out of nowhere. My right hon. Friend's period in office is coming to fruition in the Bill. Nobody has done more than him to drive up standards in health and social services.

Mr. Hinchliffe: I entirely agree. My right hon. Friend deserves the greatest credit.

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Some of my comments on the Bill will be critical of it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that they are intended to be constructive, and that I make them in the hope that in Committee the Government will look at some of the detailed points that need further examination. My comments are made in the context of my delight at the overall thrust and principles behind the Bill, which is long overdue.

I welcome the National Care Standards Commission. I think that I wrote the policy document that first proposed removing the function of regulation from local authorities. I was shot at by some of my local authority colleagues at the time for that suggestion. I felt that it was important that regulation was independent from provision. I welcome the establishment of that principle.

However, I have a slight proviso. One of the strengths of the previous system was local knowledge and accountability. I hope that we build local knowledge into the National Care Standards Commission, because it is fundamental to pick up intelligence about where things may be going wrong.

I welcome the mechanisms for independent health care and, in particular, the proposals for domiciliary care. I introduced two Bills on the issue in the previous Parliament, which were opposed by the then Government. It is wrong that we have not regulated the domiciliary care that is given to some vulnerable people.

I also welcome the General Social Care Council. The social work profession has long campaigned for such a body. I pay tribute to the parliamentary panel on personal social services and its secretary, Mr. Dick Clough. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) has done a lot of hard work on that panel over many years. It is a cross-party issue on which there has been consensus.

It would be wrong not to pay tribute to the successful campaigning of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) on small children's homes. Those provisions will be called the Coffey section. I also welcome the attention that has been given to fostering and adoption services. I would welcome clarification on whether the Bill will impinge on the accountability of guardians ad litem. I have some concerns about the lack of accountability of those professionals, who have a key role.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who made the astonishing comment that the Conservatives wanted an adoption plan for every child in care. He obviously does not know that the majority of children who come into care are there only temporarily. It might be for only a couple of days. They are fostered while there are problems at home and then they go straight back. The Tories want adoption for every child who comes into care. The hon. Gentleman has clearly not thought that through, because he would not give way on it and left in a hurry. It is a bizarre idea, but we are used to that from the Conservatives.

My concerns must be seen in the context of my strong overall welcome for the Bill. My first concern relates to children's rights directors. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but he inherited from his predecessor a policy document--which I know well--containing a commitment to appoint a children's

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rights commissioner. There is a distinction between what the Government are proposing and what most people involved with child care want, including the Health Committee and other Committees and all-party groups that have pushed strongly for a rights commissioner.

The role envisaged is too limited. Let me give an example of where a rights commissioner is desperately needed. Nobody has considered the fundamental principle of the welfare of the individual child in relation to the Child Support Agency. Like most hon. Members, I deal with any number of cases of disputes between parents when things have gone badly wrong--they are not talking to each other and access is wrongly being denied to parents as a result of CSA policies. A rights commissioner could penetrate an area that needs to be examined in the interests of vast numbers of children in this country who are suffering. I hope that the Committee will look at that.

I find it embarrassing to agree with the hon. Member for Woodspring on one issue, but I do not fully understand why the Government are moving the inspection of child minding and day care to Ofsted. I used to be involved in registering child minders and day care when I worked in local government. I hope that further thought will be given to the proposal, because they are essentially care services and should be dealt with by people who understand the care issues involved. Ofsted is unsuitable for the role. Given its reputation, we could end up with league tables, performance-related pay or targets for tots. I have a serious worry that we are turning our young children into robots. They are under pressure to achieve academically and league tables also put teachers under pressure. I do not want those inappropriate pressures brought into child minding for the under-fives.

Mr. Austin: I have some concerns on that. I am sure that my hon. Friend also agrees with the comments of Lord Laming in another place, to the effect that child minding is about social care and good child care practice rather than education. The Minister in another place responded by saying that he hoped that those involved in the inspection procedures in social services would move over to Ofsted, bringing their skills and knowledge. From his experience of social services and child care in local government, does my hon. Friend share my concern that many of those involved in child minding registration do not work exclusively in that area? If they moved to Ofsted, they would be divorced from their other child care functions and from their professional colleagues involved in social care. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Mr. Hinchliffe: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which reinforces the need to look at the issue again. I hope that the Minister will take his comments in the spirit in which they were intended and that we can look at the issue in Committee.

I should also like to query the regulation of adult day care. Having read the Bill and the guidance, I am not clear about that. If it is not to be regulated by the commission, it is a huge worry. I can envisage private care or nursing homes being closed on the grounds of poor standards and reopened the following day for day care, giving the same personal care with no regulation. Can we look at that again? We need to consider the way in which the commission can deal with proposals to close care and nursing homes. I had a debate about a home called Garden

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House in Wakefield, which closed suddenly--its standards were rather poor--and was transformed, under the same ownership, into a day nursery. We need to understand how the separation of the regulatory system would deal with such a situation. The commission would deal with the care side and Ofsted would deal with the day nursery. We need to address the practicalities.

My most serious concern is that the Bill looks at where we are now. I do not want to use the word "reactive", but it is not aspirational, as I should like it to be. We have heard the expected defence of private care home owners from the Tories. They did pretty well under the Tories and made a lot of money. We now have a huge empire full of empty places that nobody wants, funded largely by our taxpayers' money.

The key question is how we would want to be cared for. Some of us are older than others--some are even older than me. I do not want to be in geriatrica, wall to wall, facing other people with similar problems. I want to remain in my own home in my own community. That is what we should aspire to. The Bill reacts to the current situation rather than looking forward 10, 15 or 20 years, when people will want something fundamentally different to what is deemed the norm now--the "oh, stick them in a care home" attitude. We can do better than that. In 1988, Denmark passed legislation prohibiting the institutional care of old people. If it is illegal in Denmark, a country not dissimilar to ours, why are we anxious to prop up an declining private care sector? Why are the Government considering filling some of the 25,000 empty places with people who ought to be cared for in some form of intermediate care setting within the NHS?

We must consider life in non-institutional settings and home-based care, and we must look at what communications technology can offer in sustaining independence. We must anticipate where we will be in 10 or 20 years' time, because there will be a fundamentally different picture. This is an excellent measure which, with a bit of work, could become a landmark reform. I want to see that happen, and I think it will.

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