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6.20 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): This has been a worthwhile, largely measured and well-informed debate, showing a good deal of consensus on both sides of the House on many of the objectives of the Bill.

I have been whiling away the moments by looking up in "Dod's Parliamentary Companion" the background of some of the hon. Members who have spoken. No fewer than six on the Government side have a background in social work, which gives them experience on which to draw but means that they will come at the problems that we are discussing from a certain point of view.

I was disappointed that the Secretary of State chose to strike the pose that he did, seeking to undermine the spirit of shared objectives by claiming that all good things in social care began on 2 May 1997. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for putting the Bill in its correct historical context.

I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was making a bid to get his job back. If so, the Secretary of State can sleep soundly, because obviously no one has told the right hon.

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Gentleman that overt hostility to the independent sector is now off-message. I was going to describe what the right hon. Gentleman said as intemperate until I heard the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), whose comments I found most intemperate. He made outrageous allegations against the last Administration. If he would care to tell us to whom in particular his accusation of wilful neglect was directed, I am sure that those people would like the opportunity to respond. His comments are the grossest insult to people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who has a long and honourable history in the House of engagement with issues around adoption, fostering and the protection of children which even the Secretary of State was happy to acknowledge.

Mr. Dawson: I made it very clear that there are decent people on both sides of the House, and I would certainly include the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). But the experience of those working in the field that I worked in was of a Government who, over many years, with many opportunities, did not care and did nothing. In fact, they undermined efforts that were being made to help children in care.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman's intemperate language does nothing to advance his cause.

By and large, the debate has been constructive and well informed. I should like to mention particularly the contribution of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), who once again has saved me quite a lot of time by making several of the points that I wanted to make and asking the Minister several of the questions that I would have posed to him.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that we did not take lightly the decision to table a reasoned amendment. On large parts of the Bill we share the Government's aspirations, although we do not always agree with them about the route that they have chosen to reach our shared objectives. There are others where we believe that an opportunity has been missed to strengthen protection of the vulnerable, to extend the principle of the level playing field and to put in place all the elements needed to ensure that the future provision of social care, primarily commissioned by local authorities but supplied by independent providers, is placed on a stable and sustainable basis.

We welcome the recognition of the need for a unified system of regulation covering both public and private sector providers of social care, but we regret that the Government have not demonstrated their commitment to this unified approach by extending the proposals on registration of independent hospitals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) suggested, to cover all hospitals, so that all patients, wherever they are treated, can benefit. We shall press for the Government to follow the logic of their own argument.

We welcome the commitment to quality in residential care, but we are dismayed that the Government appear to have been lured into a bureaucratic "check the box" approach, measuring inputs rather than outcomes, and focusing on easily measurable physical features such as room sizes and numbers of power points or chairs in a room, rather than on what really counts--the quality of the care experienced. That point was eloquently made by

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my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) and also by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow).

We applaud the establishment of external control, albeit not fully independent, over local authorities' functions in relation to adoption and fostering, but we deeply regret that the Bill does not take the opportunity to give the Care Standards Commission a duty of maintaining a national register of potential adoptive parents, approved according to standardised, objective and relevant criteria. I welcome the knowledgeable contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) to the debate.

We support the good intentions behind the proposed inspection and registration of child care facilities, but we share with some Government Members the gravest reservations about the practical and ethical consequences of imposing a welter of regulation and creating draconian powers for a new army of bureaucrats to enter people's homes and to inspect and seize documents and possessions.

We shall need further clarification on the role of the children's rights director and on the differences proposed between the regimes in England and Wales. We see no logic in accepting different levels of protection for the interests of children in one country compared with the other. A children's rights director is not the same as a commissioner, as the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent pointed out, underlining the bipartisan nature of views on the issue.

We shall seek clarification of the scope of powers under the Bill to regulate alternative practitioners on the fringes of medicine, and to extend to the often vulnerable people who turn to those unregulated practitioners the protection that the Bill provides to other groups.

We shall want to know what message the Government want local authorities to take from the Bill, removing as it does many of their functions, curtailing others and, taken together with the Local Government Bill, effectively squeezing them out of residential care provision.

Towering above and beyond those concerns are two overarching flaws in the Bill--the excessive use of regulations and ministerial statements of standards, which renders the Bill a virtually empty box, not amenable to proper scrutiny or analysis; and the total absence of any acknowledgement of the huge resource implications of the Bill or of the crisis in funding of social care provision, which in many areas of the country makes the Bill's worthy objectives look like distant aspirations.

I shall deal first with the use of secondary legislation to make regulations, and worse, the powers for Ministers to set the minimum standards, which will literally spell life or death to care homes, without any parliamentary scrutiny. In key areas of the Bill, it is impossible for us to assess the impact or significance of what is proposed until the standards and regulations are finalised.

If the Minister does not mind my saying so, I think that his intervention on a couple of occasions muddied the waters. It is my clear understanding--I am sure that if he were listening, he would correct me if I am wrong--that, although the regulations will be presented to the House in the form of statutory instruments subject to the negative procedure, the standards will be set by a ministerial statement and will at no time be subject to scrutiny in the

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House. Probably the most important part of the Bill in terms of its impact on people providing social care will thus come into effect without any proper scrutiny.

The Government-commissioned paper by the Centre for Policy on Ageing, "Fit for the Future?", has set the cat well and truly among the pigeons, with hundreds of proposed standards for care homes, many of dubious value and some ruinously costly to implement. We now know that the Government will not implement all of those proposals, but we do not know which ones they will implement, at what level and over what time scale.

In the meantime, the proposals relating to accommodation in particular have blighted the sector. Care home owners and lenders alike are unable to assess whether particular homes will be compliant, or will have to invest heavily in order to avoid closure. Many properties are, in effect, unsaleable, and many capital providers have simply withdrawn from the market. A clear statement from the Minister, and a timetable, are now imperative--not just to protect the owners and operators of care homes, but to ensure that the provision that exists in the marketplace remains there.

Mr. Rowe: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the initial anxiety was felt most acutely in the private sector, the same financial burden will have to fall on the community charge payer? Local authorities must view the requirements with equal anxiety.

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I shall say more about this in a moment. However, it goes further than that. Ultimately, the burden of cost that falls on the private sector will be borne by the taxpayer in one way or another. The presence of 75 per cent. of people in residential and nursing homes is financed by local authorities and, ultimately, by the taxpayer.

Elsewhere--for example, in relation to independent acute hospitals--the Bill's registration regime is subject to compliance with standards and regulations that are as yet unknown. These are not minor housekeeping details; they are fundamental to a proper assessment of the impact of the Bill. The use of regulation-making and standard- setting powers--sometimes beyond the scope of parliamentary scrutiny--and the failure to present draft regulations for consideration in parallel with the Bill mean that the Government are asking the House to write them a blank cheque.

Meaningful scrutiny is impossible. The regulatory impact assessment published with the Bill--the Government are obliged to publish such information for the benefit of Members--is itself a meaningless exercise. It acknowledges that costs will be imposed, both in the form of fees and in the form of the costs of compliance with standards--but with no estimate whatever of the potentially enormous total of the latter.

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