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Sittings in Westminster Hall

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Select Committees (Joint Meetings)

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Line 37, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.

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Business of the House

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Minimum Incomes

10.41 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): I beg leave to present a petition for the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust. We know that poverty causes ill health, but little evidence exists on the threshold at which that occurs. The petition therefore calls for the research into the minimum incomes needed to provide good health so as to inform Government policy-making. The petition has the support of 28 non-governmental organisations with a membership of more than 7.8 million people and 84 church leaders. It has 6,740 signatures, and those supporting it include the British Medical Association, the National Pensioners Convention, the Trades Union Congress, the UK Public Health Association, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Church of Scotland and many others.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Harefield Hospital

10.43 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of the Heart of Harefield campaign in support of Harefield hospital, signed by Councillor Richard Barnes of the Greater London Assembly, Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub and 20,000 additional signatories.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Social Services (Peterborough)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

10.44 pm

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to draw the attention of the House for a few minutes to social services funding in Peterborough council.

I start by making three points by way of background. First, as the Minister knows, there have been problems in the delivery of social services in Peterborough for some considerable time, going back to the old Cambridgeshire county council. Ricky Neave, whose tragic death some years ago shocked the area and, I think, the nation, was my constituent, and his death had serious consequences for social services policy.

Secondly, Cambridgeshire social services, now under the direction of Liz Railton, and Peterborough social services, under the direction of Maureen Allan, have two fine directors who are not only addressing the problems that they inherited, but doing so positively and constructively.

Thirdly, I do not approach the subject in a party political way. I have spent most time developing the case with officers of the council rather than with politicians, and I hope that we can proceed on that basis.

As the Minister knows, there is pressure on the Peterborough social services budget, but that is not unique. The directors of the social services survey in September 2000 showed that the average projected mid-year overcommitment is about 2.1 per cent. and that the major area of overcommitment is attributable to children's services, and that that was true in just over half the authorities which responded to that survey.

The survey further outlined that the pressures in children's services are believed to be, first, the escalating cost of placements for children who are looked after, and, secondly, the rising numbers of those children, at 4 per cent., and particularly those on care orders, at 8 per cent.

Against that general background, the position in Peterborough is that, in this financial year, social services will spend about £30 million--22 per cent. above their standard spending assessment; but the real figures of concern are that spending on children's services will be 114 per cent. above SSA, and, consequently, spending on adult services will be 12 per cent. below SSA.

As in the country, so in Peterborough: the largest pressures come from the number of children in the looked-after category and those on the child protection registers. That is why the experiences arising from the case of Ricky Neave were of some significance. The council has an action plan to drive down those numbers, and the plan has been approved by the Minister's social security inspectors.

It is worth asking at this point why Peterborough has a particular problem. Only seven authorities in the country have a higher proportion of children in all three age bands, and of those seven, Peterborough has the highest number of children looked after except for Manchester. It has the highest number on the children's protection register and it has the lowest SSA for children per capita apart from Milton Keynes.

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I have sent evidence to the Minister, which he has generously acknowledged, which shows that the problem in Peterborough is not the high budget but can be related in part to the low SSA, although I happily acknowledge that the two are interrelated.

The high percentage of spend on children in Peterborough when compared with other unitary authorities and shire counties relates to the number of children in the looked-after category and on the child protection register. As the Minister knows, Peterborough has two and a half times as many looked-after children per 10,000 of the population, and nearly three times as many children on the child protection register as Cambridgeshire county council does. Peterborough wants to get those numbers down to the national average; it has set itself a target of achieving that in three years. It needs to do that because it is generally accepted--including by the Minister's inspectors--that the numbers are too high even if the historical reasons for them are understood.

We all want children's services to be provided in the most appropriate circumstances. We are worried that, given the high numbers, what has happened historically may not be in the best interests of all the children. However, getting numbers in Peterborough down to the national average in three years will require a reduction of 15 per cent. per annum in those on the child protection register and a 14 per cent. reduction per annum in the number of looked-after children. The Minister has been in his job long enough--as I was in a previous Government--to understand that those figures constitute an enormous reduction to ask of any local authority that also has to provide services day in, day out.

However, it is important to achieve that aim both for the children and because it represents a potential saving of approximately £2.5 million a year to the local authority. That money could be used not least for adult services. The Minister also knows that attempting to reduce numbers by 15 and 14 per cent. per annum is more difficult because the numbers in the two categories are increasing nationally. The trend cannot be established on a level playing field; it is an uphill task.

I assure the Minister, with the authority of the director of social services and the chief executive of the local authority, that the council is determined to act. It has already commissioned a report from the district auditor and it has produced a phased recovery plan for reduced spend on children's services over the three years. I shall not bore the Minister with details--we do not have time to go into them tonight--save to say that the plan centres on three objectives: to improve partnerships, to target resources better and, importantly, to re-examine the criteria that bring children into the system in the first place.

The district auditor's study shows that Peterborough's unit cost for looked-after children is below the average for comparable authorities by more than 15 per cent. I hope that the Minister will examine that figure; it is significant because it suggests that the problem stems from the historical increase in the number of children rather than gross inefficiency or maladministration in the department or the council.

To achieve the goal that it has set itself and which is in line with what the Minister would wish, the council will need some short-term, transitional financial assistance.

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The Minister will know that the council already plans to reduce spending on services. Indeed, it faces a certain amount of economic pressure, even in this financial year. The money being taken out of services is already significant, but the council faces having to take out even more if it is to address the problem. I know that he will want to bear in mind the improving picture for the delivery of social services in Peterborough, the new practices and the new personnel that Maureen Allan has put in place. All of us in Peterborough are grateful for the support, encouragement and constructive advice that his SSIs have given to the council during the various examinations. Everybody in Peterborough is pleased that the council's performance is improving and that that improvement has been recognised by the inspectors.

If the council is to meet the objective of getting the figures for those two sets of children down to the national average, it will need to find, in addition to all its other spending, about £2.7 million over the next three years. As the Minister will understand, with spending on children at 114 per cent. above SSA and spending on adults 12 per cent. below, adult services are bearing the brunt of the diminution in services. He also knows that around the country the pressures on departments that provide social services for adults are increasing.

In the next financial year, the council can look to a cash increase in its social services SSA of 1.1 per cent. The Minister will tell me, as do the official figures, that it will receive a 4.5 per cent. increase. I want him to know that we both understand that that is calculated on a reduced base because the Government have not yet made apparent what the care leaver's specific grant will be. A certain amount of crucial expenditure hangs on that grant.

I do not want the Minister to give me a definitive response. Dare I say that I hope he will not do so? I hope, however, that he accepts the tone in which I have put the case and ask him to reflect on the facts and the evidence that have been put before him. The council needs £2.7 million over three years to get the numbers down in those two categories of children. It is determined to achieve that, if it can have the resources to do so. It has asked me to tell him that if he is able to find £1.3 million, tapering over three years, it will find the rest, although that will be extremely difficult. That brings me back to the care leaver's specific grant. The Government have not yet announced that grant. Should the Minister want to help, it would be a suitable vehicle for addressing the issue.

I hope the Minister recognises that I have not made a plea for an increase in the SSA. I have not argued that the Government have treated Peterborough unfairly; nor have I made a party political case. A specific historical problem needs to be addressed for the benefit of the children and the services for adults. The council is determined to address the problem, but it will need short-term help. That is the case that I leave with him. I hope that he will go away, think about it and look favourably on Peterborough's claim when the care leaver's specific grant announcements are made.

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