Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 57)

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Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): It is a pleasure to serve on a Standing Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Sayeed, for the first time. I thank you for the sensible suggestion of taking the three reports together—a three-in-one approach. After a week like the one that we have just had, that offer is gratefully accepted.

I welcome the additional money that the Government propose, but I want to unpick the figures, partly for the Committee's benefit, because it is important that Committees such as this know what they are talking about. As the financial contributions of the three grants are not of equal size, it becomes all the more important that the partnership grant should be the largest.

The figures that the Minister announced today for spending on the partnership a grant, and projected spending in 2001–02, show that for this year there will be a significant decrease of £37 million in the grant. When we take into account the increases in the two smaller grants, the additional spending on the three grants together will be £3 million, an increase of about 1 per cent. That is a drop in the ocean compared with what the social services are trying to provide. That is why we must unpick the figures. There is no doubt that social services departments find themselves in a difficult position. Although the money is ring-fenced, that must be seen in the context of those departments' strategies for spending on their hard-pressed services.

When I spoke to the local authority for my area about how the additional grants work in practice, things became clearer. Although the central Government grant has increased by 5 per cent. overall, the local authority is obliged to increase education spending by 6 per cent. That means cuts or increased charges in other areas, and the social services budget has borne the brunt of those necessary savings. Spending on social services by my local authority in Solihull will increase by just 2.5 per cent. It is important to put the figures on the record, because they illustrate the problem that social services departments face. As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) pointed out, the effect on the funding of mainstream services becomes more important as services provided under the partnership grant join those mainstream services. We uncovered that early on in our debate, and I want to highlight that issue.

It is useful to have the announcement of what the partnership grant will be for next year. I intended to raise with the Minister the point that, if social services departments are to plan their services effectively, they need to carry out some form of forward budgeting. It is helpful for the departments to know by how much the partnership grant will be cut—the national figure is going down to £178 million next year. It is helpful in the sense that they have to think carefully about how they will continue with the things that they have found effective on the ground. In principle, any guidance that the Minister can give on the evolution of the grants would be helpful. We did not hear anything about how the prevention grant and the carers grant might evolve in the following financial year we heard only about the partnership grant—unless I missed something. It would be helpful to know how those other grants will be developed—in an upward direction, I hope—by the Government.

We need to be realistic. The money that the Government are making available will be used to plug some gaps. The Minister said that 85 per cent. of the new money would be spent on additional services. None the less, in annexe A of ``Special Grant Report'' No. 56, there is provision for the improvement of services. Undoubtedly, social services departments will use that to justify the use of the new money to shore up their budgets, as they try to operate within tighter and tighter constraints. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) last year, and as it appears in the annexe of this year's report on the special grants, we draw attention to it again.

I would like to ask the Minister about the way in which the grants have been used, the information that he has received and the conclusions that he has drawn from it. It would be helpful to know whether the Minister has received any information from local authorities on their experience of the joint assessment process and joint working. He has mentioned that best practice will be promoted between authorities, but he will also, as part of his collation of information, have had examples of circumstances in which things have not worked out so well.

When I read the Hansard report of the equivalent debate from last year, I was struck by a reference to the ``Berlin wall'' that sometimes exists between health services and social services. I should be interested to hear from the Minister about any examples of good practice from which we could learn and in which that Berlin wall is lowered. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will continue to come across constituency cases in which people stumble over that wall. As recently as 18 March I encountered a classic example of the kind of problem that arises from poor joint working.

Undoubtedly, funding follows perceived pathways. Things usually work quite well if a user of social services follows a perceived pathway from the hospital to social services, but those who deviate from the traditional or well-used path experience problems. An 80-year-old widow in my constituency was discharged from Redditch hospital—not one that is frequently used by my constituents, which is why I speak of a little-used pathway—after a 16-day stay for a broken femur and it took social services two weeks to attend to her. All Committee members would agree that that is not acceptable.

In case I have given the wrong impression by using that example, I point out that, for the vast majority of my constituents, the perceived pathway from other hospitals—Birmingham Heartlands and the Solihull Healthcare NHS trust—back into the community works well. However, sometimes the joint process on which the grants are intended to improve does not reach the less-used routes and people suffer as a result. How are examples of best practice disseminated? They are the way to remove anomalies such as the one that I described.

I am particularly interested to know what impact the Minister expects the comprehensive spending review to have on the grants for next year. Will the ring fencing remain? That is of great importance to social services. I mentioned the requirement placed on local authorities to spend a certain percentage—higher than the percentage increase that they receive from central Government—on education. That shows why social services need the money to be ring-fenced. I appeal to the Minister to make that possible and to suggest the likely outcome for the prevention and carers grants.

My discussions with social services have led me to the view that one of the problems in the application of the grants is in the national priorities set for the national health service, which are different from those placed on social services. We all know that the NHS is to receive new money. We do not know exactly what it will go on, or what conditions will be attached to some of it, but there are priorities for its use, which lead to concern in the social services about the tension that arises when the two departments try to work together in providing care through the relevant grants.

Discussion of the carers grant provides a good opportunity to voice our appreciation of the £34 billion-worth of care that carers provide for loved ones and others for whom they have taken responsibility. Without that, the state would have a very large bill to pay. A word of caution is also due. As 58 per cent. of those carers are women, and given women's increasing tendency to return to work—and the active encouragement that they are being given to do so—the state is likely to come under more pressure to provide care that has previously been provided by carers. We welcome a grant that provides some respite to carers.

Closer examination of the private Member's Bill presented by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) reveals certain problems in providing the respite that the grant is designed to provide.

For example, the discussion about the assessment process, which is key to the use of the grants, has highlighted problems. Assessments, including joint assessments, are mentioned many times in the reports. The Local Government Association believes that requirements to undertake joint assessments and re-assessments come with a significant cost, in terms of staff and time, if they are to be done properly. The Minister should consider whether the 5 per cent. figure will be able to support social services in carrying out the assessment process.

On promoting independence, we understand the motivation to enable people to live independently in the community for as long as possible when that coincides with their wishes. Because of the relative costs involved, however, local authorities could be tempted to encourage people to do that for too long. Residential costs are often higher than the cost of maintaining people in their homes. There is anecdotal evidence of people who live at home whose problems, such as incontinence, are not treated as promptly as they would be in a nursed setting. Care home owners observe that the level of need increases in a residential setting. People come into a residential setting when their needs level is significantly higher than it was.

There is growing concern that a local authority might not have the right motivation when it assesses a person's needs. People should not be kept independent in the community if that is detrimental to their quality of life. It is a difficult issue, but evidence is emerging that local authorities may succumb to that temptation. We would not want that to happen.

5.3 pm

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