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Mr. Dawson: My colleagues have been scrutinising the Register of Members' Interests. We note that the hon. Gentleman has a shareholding in Castlemead Ltd., a company involved in housebuilding and development, including the development of premises for lease to general medical practitioners. Did the hon. Gentleman declare that interest before the debate?

Mr. Hammond: My interest is declared in the register. It has nothing whatever to do with the subject of today's

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debate. As far as I know, general practice premises have nothing to do with the subject of the Bill. What I find most amazing is that the hon. Gentleman's right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have been scrabbling through the Register of Members' Interests. Given the army of civil servants and special advisers that they have behind them, one would think that my registerable interests, and those of my colleagues on the Front Bench, would be firmly fixed in their minds.

I trust, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have not transgressed the rules in any way. I do not believe that I have. That was a rather pathetic attempt by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), if he does not mind my saying so. Perhaps, on reflection, he will wonder whether it was wise to allow himself to be used as the stooge of the Front Bench as the register was passed backwards through the Chamber.

As I was saying before I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, perhaps too generously, the regulatory impact assessment gives no estimate of the potentially enormous cost of compliance with the standards that are to be imposed by ministerial statement under the Bill. In the one area in which progress on draft standards has been made--standards for residential care homes--the publication of the document has blighted the sector with uncertainty, as the Government have had to distance themselves from the majority of the recommendations and from the excessive burdens recommended by the authors of that document.

Who will pay? Especially in the residential and domiciliary care sector, a raft of new burdens will be laid on top of the compliance cost of the huge burdens that the Government have imposed on businesses through higher taxes, the working time directive, the minimum wage, the parental leave directive and the other paraphernalia of the social chapter.

Mr. Dobson: Which of those burdens would the hon. Gentleman repeal?

Mr. Hammond: I simply make the point that the Government have already imposed a huge additional financial burden on businesses in general and especially on the independent care home sector. They have done so against a background of below-inflation increases in the fees paid by most local authorities during the past three years.

A large firm of chartered accountants, acting as receivers, is already one of the biggest operators of residential care beds in the country. The Minister knows that a crisis point has been reached, especially in high-cost areas, with squeezed local authorities simply unable to pay the fees that will ensure an adequate supply of beds. Not only have the fees risen more slowly than inflation, but the needs of those placed in care homes has increased dramatically as local authorities have been forced to ration. People are now routinely being placed in care at the residential care fee level, although their needs are equivalent to those of people who only a few years ago were placed in nursing care.

The Bill completely misses the opportunity to link fees, ideally with incremental bands, to needs as well as geographical cost criteria--and, in turn, to relate staffing

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ratios and other standards to those levels--and to ensure that that is done fairly and transparently by introducing a standardised assessment mechanism that can be accepted by providers and commissioners across the country. We shall table amendments in Committee to achieve those objectives and to end the lottery by which different local authorities use different assessment criteria and vary the eligibility thresholds to reflect their changing budgetary circumstances.

We must know whether the Government will openly acknowledge that their proposals will be paid for from the public purse. If local authorities are not fully reimbursed for the additional costs, the number of placements that they can support will decrease and people with ever greater needs will be left to fend for themselves. If the Government are prepared to acknowledge that they will pay the bill, why do they have to legislate to achieve those important improvements?

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has said, the Government could have achieved many of their objectives through the contracting process by arranging for premium fees to be paid where certain standards were met in the way that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) described in respect of her local authority.

I re-emphasise our support for many of the aspirations behind the Bill. My noble Friends in the other place have sought--in some cases, successfully--to address some of its shortcomings. If, as I expect that they might, the Government defeat the Opposition amendment and the Bill receives its Second Reading, we shall continue that work in Committee in a constructive and positive way. We shall try to convince the Government of the need to extend the Bill's scope in some areas, to change its focus in others and to narrow its ambitions where it risks straying beyond what is practical and creating excessively intrusive and bureaucratic mechanisms, to create workable, fair and consistent legislation.

The members of the Standing Committee that will consider the Bill will be hampered by its architecture and the "cart before the horse" approach that the Government have adopted. We will not know the Bill's full cost implications perhaps for years to come--not until long after parliamentary scrutiny has been completed and certainly not until we see the detailed standards and regulations. We do not know the cost impact on service providers because no meaningful regulatory impact assessment is available. That cannot happen until the detailed standards and regulations are in place.

We do not know how or whether the Government intend to meet the huge cost burdens that the proposed changes will impose on local authorities, independent providers and others, nor consequently the impact of this well- intentioned but potentially damaging Bill on the availability of, and access to, social care and the other services that it covers.

I urge my hon. Friends to support the amendment and send the Government back to the drawing board with a clear message that the House supports the Bill's underlying aspirations to improve quality, strengthen protection of the vulnerable and level the playing field, but cannot approve what is in essence a blank cheque without the remotest guidance on the costs that will be imposed, or any clue about how they will be met.

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6.40 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): During the debate, we have heard nearly 20 speeches from the Back Benches. Many of those speeches were excellent, including that of the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) also made a good speech. It was the first time that I had heard him speak. He took exactly the right approach to the Bill and made a positive contribution to the debate. That also applies to the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport (Ms Coffey), and for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), my very good hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe); my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones), for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who introduced a welcome note of consensus to our proceedings.

No speech was better than that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I had the privilege of serving under my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras when he was Secretary of State for Health. Many hon. Members who spoke pointed out that the Bill owes a great deal to my right hon. Friend's commitment, vision and concern for children and frail and vulnerable people. He deserves a round of applause for the measure. [Interruption.] I did not mean that literally.

Twenty substantial contributions to our proceedings were made this afternoon. I hope that hon. Members will not think me discourteous if I do not try to respond to every detailed point. A welter of comments have been made. It is apparent from the volume of material that I have at the Dispatch Box that I am inundated with technical information, which I shall try to plough through.

Let me begin with the points that the right hon. Member for South Norfolk made because he and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, expressed some anxiety about "Fit for the Future?". The right hon. Gentleman asked for three assurances: that the regulations would not be too prescriptive; that they would not be too burdensome; and that the better regulation taskforce would be properly consulted on their implementation. I can give him an assurance on all three points. We have tried repeatedly to send a clear message from the Department of Health to the care home sector and others that we shall proceed sensibly and carefully with the proposals.

Few hon. Members who spoke in the debate, apart from the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), on whose speech I shall not dwell, argued against higher standards. The hon. Gentleman is the authentic voice of 19th-century laissez-faire politics, and we expect nothing less of him. I tried to reassure the right hon. Member for South Norfolk in a debate in Westminster Hall that we shall take a common-sense approach to the Bill. It would be stupid to do otherwise, and we are not stupid. We need and rely on good-quality care home providers. As we move towards a new set of minimum requirement standards, we shall ensure that they are sensible, affordable and practical.

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The right hon. Gentleman and many other Conservative Members referred repeatedly to the potential use of a 10 sq m standard. A bit of historical accuracy might be helpful. The right hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members might be interested to know that their party is responsible for the 10 sq m standard, which it set nearly 30 years ago. Having had a standard for 30 years, people have been--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) says that I am wrong.


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