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Social Services (Calderdale)

12.30 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I ask your permission, Mr. McWilliam, for my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty) to speak after me. We share the local authority area of Calderdale and many of the cuts in social and other services proposed by the ruling Conservative group affect both our constituencies.

Since I asked for this debate some time ago, the Conservative group has backed down from making certain cuts and has decided to use some of the money from the housing transfer budget to save certain vital services. We must ask why the Conservatives have caused so much anxiety to many vulnerable people when, if we are to believe them, the money was there all the time.

The U-turn on the proposal to close the Scope outreach centre is very welcome, but I put on the record a warning that the Conservative council retreated from the cut only because of the wonderful campaign mounted by Janice Crabtree, the co-ordinator, her staff, the relatives and friends of the service users and, most importantly, the users--people such as Mr. Mark Pollard. He wrote to the Evening Courier in Halifax saying:

Similarly, there was a proposal to close three adventure playgrounds that provide a good social service in areas in which there are many children and in deprived areas. A vigorous campaign was fought to save the playgrounds. Again, I pay tribute to the people such as Colin and Janice Jagger, who campaigned and fought so hard to save them. The Tory leader, Councillor John Ford, now says that they never intended to close that vital service for children, but I simply do not believe him. The massive campaign to save the playgrounds went on for two months, so why cause so much anxiety and fear among those communities for more than two months if they never intended to close them in the first place? The Tories could simply have said, "That is not true."

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Welcome though the reprieve is for those services, many more face the axe. I am very concerned about the proposal to end free school milk. Since the Labour Government entered office, the eradication of child poverty has been a priority: 1 million children have been taken out of poverty and the Government plan to take another 2 million out of poverty in the next few years. School milk is an essential service for young children, particularly those with a low-income background. It provides vital nutrition, it is cheap and the take-up rate is almost 100 per cent. I call on councillors such as Mohamed Choudry and Shakir Saghir in St. Johns, Lorraine Stott in Mixendon and others to oppose this nasty little cut, which will save only £90,000. If they vote for the cut, they will harm children. The so-called independent councillor in Calderdale, Colin Stout, continually refers to his independence, so why is he taking the Tory whip on such a cut? It is disgraceful.

Another cut that looks small in monetary terms but would cause an enormous reduction in a vital service is the decision to axe £12,570 from the drugs and alcohol residential rehabilitation budget. That would be a disaster in the face of the increasing problem of drugs in Halifax and the Calder Valley. The mobile response team will be cut by £100,000, even though that service offers a lifeline to elderly people living in the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley will go into more detail, but we have both visited the scheme and know its worth.

Cuts to such vital services will threaten the excellent work of the health and social affairs committee set up by the former Labour council. The council is one of five that have achieved beacon status for joint working with the health services. That sort of initiative is rare and is included in the 10-year national health service plan. Labour-controlled Calderdale council introduced joint working in 1994 and it would be tragic if the committee's excellent work was threatened because of cuts in the grant to the voluntary sector, which I shall now address.

The proposed cut in the grant to advice centres has encouraged the citizens advice bureau to try to outbid two other voluntary organisations--Rhodes street advice centre and the DART advice centre for the disabled. Sadly, the CAB appears to have done a deal with the Tories, although I have warned it that if it sups with the devil, it will need a very long spoon. Calderdale DART is an advice centre for people with disabilities; it offers the excellent specialist service that is needed if, as we all want, disabled people are to remain in the community. One of its users wrote to the Halifax Evening Courier stating:

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The other advice centre that will close if the cut in the voluntary sector goes ahead and there is an amalgamation is the Rhodes street advice centre. It is an invaluable service in the middle of the Asian community and the co-ordinator, councillor Mohamed Najib, who ran the centre as a volunteer for years, and his staff of five offer advice on social services, housing, health, immigration and a host of other subjects. They deal with 14,000 queries a year and the suggestion that the CAB could replicate that service is nonsense. To go down that road is to play into the hands of right-wing extremists on Calderdale council.

Finally, I shall mention another service for retired people highlighted by the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Calderdale council. There is a possible cut in the budget for Matham Road bowling club and Ackroyd bowling green. Elderly people use those facilities and the council will save only £8,000. Meanwhile, it is spending £80,000 to ask the people of Calderdale for their ideas on best value--it is spending £80,000 on a public relations exercise while cutting two well-used and well-loved bowling greens.

The Tory budget contains many cuts that would harm young, disabled or elderly people. Tory councillors who fought last May's election on promises to improve services should examine their consciences. They ought to put the interests of the electorate who voted for them first by voting against this awful budget.

12.40 pm

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) that the Tories who run Calderdale council are guilty of incompetence and heartlessness in drawing up their budget proposals. I am of course delighted by the reprieve of services such as road safety education, recycling facilities, adventure playgrounds and especially the Scope outreach service, but, as my hon. Friend mentioned, credit for that is due to local people who have campaigned vigorously against the cuts. There is no credit due to the Tories for withdrawing proposals that should never have been made in the first place.

The original Conservative budget proposals caused massive dismay and concern throughout Calderdale. In particular, the proposed cuts to the Scope outreach centre and the mobile response unit caused anger, outrage and fear among people who depend on those vital services. Indeed, it appears that some of the cuts were not even required. It is hard to believe that the council's financial position could have changed so much in only three weeks. The satisfaction of seeing some of those services saved should not hide the long-term damage that will be inflicted by the Tory budget, because many damaging cuts remain.

The Tories still propose to decimate the mobile response service by cutting its budget by more than half. They have failed to indicate how the same level of service can be provided. Therefore, they are putting 2,500 vulnerable elderly people at risk by their actions. They are continuing to ignore the health of young children by scrapping free school milk, they are reducing the alcohol and drug rehabilitation budget and--this is an idea from the dark ages--they are closing 22 public toilets, which will make life difficult for the elderly, diabetics and anyone with poor bladder control.

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There are also serious doubts about the long-term future of services. The Tories have given social services extra funding for one year, but that could mean cuts of up to £1 million next year. They have piled further pressure on social services by failing to give them adequate funding for contracts. Perhaps they know that they will lose control of Calderdale next year, so they are happy to pile up problems for the party that takes over from them. It is an uncaring and short-sighted budget from an uncaring and short-sighted party.

I should like to give an example of the damage that the Tories' heartless proposals would cause. The mobile response team is part of the community alarm service. A team of staff are on call 24 hours a day to go out immediately to people who press their alarm button because they need help. They may have fallen or need help getting back into a chair or bed. They may be unwell and need someone to check and reassure them. They may have had an accident or have some other care need, in which case the response team will visit, assess their problem and provide appropriate help. The team makes a real difference to the quality of life of older people. Without it, there would be no choice but to call an ambulance or other emergency service, which would mean that many of the older people would quickly end up in either hospital or long-term care.

The Conservatives still want to decimate the team by cutting more than half the budget. However, they have no idea how that might be achieved or what might replace the service, and they have had no discussions with the charity that provides the service. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax and I met the staff. Like many who work in social care, they are totally committed to the people whom they help. They are at a loss to understand how anyone can treat their work and the service that they provide with such contempt.

It is perhaps ironic that Calderdale was recently awarded beacon status for its joint work with health. Of course, that reflects policies and initiatives that were implemented by the previous Labour administration. However, the Tory budget proposals and the way in which they were prepared must cast doubt on how long Calderdale will retain beacon status. There has been no consultation with health and voluntary sector partners, some of whose grants are being cut. No thought has been given to the impact of such actions on the priorities and agendas that have been established. Calderdale authority is not generously, or even adequately, funded. Social care staff have said that they are deeply disillusioned with the way in which the authority treats the social services department. Their belief that they are treated as second-class citizens is reflected in the fact that the authority is finding it difficult to recruit staff.

We are awaiting publication of the social services inspection of services for older people, and it is perhaps unfortunate that the report will not be published until the budget process has been completed. It is widely believed that the report will criticise the department's performance in many areas. It is unlikely that it will make a case for cutting expenditure on vital services, but actions that officers might take to address any criticisms in the report will be undermined at the outset by Tory budget proposals that will further damage morale and funding.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax and I have made it clear that we will support council representations to the Government for further assistance, but only if it is honest about the financial situation and its proposals' impact, and if it ceases to target its proposed cuts on the most vulnerable. To date, our offer has been ignored. It seems that Calderdale Tories are more interested in political gestures than working together to benefit vulnerable people.

I ask the Minister to consider the problems that Calderdale faces. This year, Calderdale enjoyed a very generous financial settlement--the second highest secured by a metropolitan borough. However, historically, Calderdale has been underfunded because of decisions taken in the 1980s on the structure of local government finance. I hope that that issue will be addressed in the future, but is targeted help available now? Could such help be accompanied by further vigilance in seeking to protect the vulnerable in Calderdale from the impact of the budget proposals? I urge the strongest possible action to ensure that Calderdale council meets its targets and achieves the standard of services that local people have a right to expect.

12.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on securing this important opportunity to debate social services spending plans in Calderdale. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty) on her important contribution.

Both my hon. Friends will agree that social services provide a hugely important range of services for some of the most vulnerable in our society, particularly children and the elderly. They can also help by dealing directly with the very real issues of social exclusion and deprivation that continue adversely to affect too many of our communities and fellow citizens. Those are very important responsibilities, and I believe that it is the Government's task to ensure that those crucial services are properly resourced and operate within a framework that promotes greater independence, opportunity and choice, and which raises the quality of front-line services. However, it is the job of local authorities such as Calderdale to provide and plan for the necessary front-line services to meet the needs of local communities, and to demonstrate clear improvements in both quality and accessibility. Those are the essential criteria against which any proposals for social services expenditure must be judged.

I turn first to the issue of resources. The Government have substantially increased the resources available to local councils to ensure that they are better able to discharge their duties. I should like to say more about those new resources, highlighting how Calderdale has benefited. Through the spending review announced early last year, over the next three years the Government are increasing by an average of 3.4 per cent. in real terms the resources that are available to councils with social services responsibilities. That increase compares with an average real-terms growth in social services resources of just 0.1 per cent. per annum during the previous Parliament.

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The people of Calderdale will be among those who benefit from the substantial increases in resources provided for social services. This year, the funding made available through standard spending assessments is just over £32 million--5.1 per cent. more than in the previous year. We recently announced that those resources will increase again next year by a further 4.4 per cent.--substantially above the rate of inflation. In addition, the council will gain from the significant increases in new and on-going special grants that we are making available. In December, the Secretary of State for Health announced that a further £100 million, on top of the figures that I have quoted, would be made available for social services spending in 2001-02. Calderdale council will benefit by an extra £378,000 from those additional ring-fenced resources.

We have provided significant additional resources for children's services over the past few years. Last year, we introduced, for the first time, a grant to improve the range and quality of children's social services provided by local councils. In the first year of that grant, Calderdale received £260,000. It received a further £410,000 this year, and next year the grant will rise to £1.026 million. Other services have received additional resources. For example, Calderdale's carer's grant has more than trebled over the past three years. The grant totalled £75,000 in 1999 but will rise to £259,000 next year. Similarly, the council's mental health grant over the same three-year period will have risen from £331,000 in 1999 to £597,000 next year.

I hope that both my hon. Friends accept that the Government have provided significant new and additional resources to Calderdale council. In 2001-02, adding together what has been allocated through standard spending assessments and the new ring-fenced grants, the council has been provided with more than £36 million to spend on its social services. Exactly how those substantial sums are spent is for the council to decide. Local councillors must weigh up how much should be allocated to social care services, taking into account Government targets and what local users and carers want. It is the council's responsibility to manage those resources carefully and sensibly, so that maximum benefit accrues to people who require social services in Calderdale. That is the challenge facing all councils at this time of year as they set their budgets for 2001-02.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax rightly decided to raise her concerns at a time when it seemed that Conservative councillors in Calderdale intended to impose swingeing cuts on the social services budget, putting many vulnerable people at risk. Like my hon. Friend, I was worried when that prospect was brought to my attention. However, I understand that following recommendations made last night as a result of the concerns that she and others had raised about the proposals, councillors have revised their budget allocations and have stepped back from taking a number of decisions which would have caused considerable anxiety to local people. I know that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley remain concerned about some of the decisions that Conservative councillors appear to be intent on pursuing, and I fully understand that. The yardstick against which those and any other decisions are to be judged will be the extent to which they enhance community well-being and help to meet the needs of

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vulnerable people in Calderdale. It will be for local people to make any such judgment and to express it through the ballot box.

The Government will continue to look carefully and closely at the performance of social services in Calderdale to ensure that progress is made in meeting the national objectives that we have set. I assure both my hon. Friends that those objectives are not optional. They were set for the clear purpose of raising the standard of social services in every part of the country, and Calderdale is no exception. We expect every council to take the necessary steps to meet those standards, because that is the right way in which to end the lottery of care that has been apparent in social services for far too long.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax recognises that Calderdale can point to progress in improving its performance in a number of important areas. On children's services, for example, the council's performance in providing stability for looked-after children has improved significantly, but only one in three children leaving care did so with any educational qualifications. That is not good enough and we shall look for significant improvements in that important indicator.

In Calderdale, few people with learning disabilities are helped to live at home, although the number is gradually increasing. The same picture emerges for people with physical disabilities or mental health problems, and residential care services are acknowledged to be poor. Some inspections of residential homes for adults were not carried out within the statutory time scale, and the number of people entering residential care in Calderdale is much higher than the national average. That needs careful attention.

Everyone accepts that it is better for people to be helped to live in their own homes. Unfortunately, in Calderdale, the number of people receiving intensive care to allow them to live in their own homes fell last year against the national trend. That is a matter of concern and I shall look to the local authority to make greater efforts to bring its local performance into line with that in other parts of the country.

Calderdale is to be congratulated on achieving beacon status for partnership working in health. It will be necessary to ensure that high-quality services and strong partnership working are maintained when the reconfiguration of local health services has been completed.

In summary, Calderdale is at the start of a long journey in the development of good social care services. That will require a strategic, long-term vision of what needs to be done. That vision will have to be embraced by elected Members and the local community. It will take time, commitment and further investment, not less.

Mrs. Mahon : Will the Minister look particularly at the joint working between the local authority and

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Calderdale health care trust, because together they have done such good work? If the cuts jeopardise that, it would be sad for all those who have worked so hard.

Mr. Hutton : I agree strongly with my hon. Friend; I had intended briefly to mention intermediate care developments in Calderdale.

This is not the time to contemplate cutting funding for crucial, front-line social care services. Rather, it is time to review whether every pound is spent to maximum effect, whether better commissioning practices might release further savings, whether the balance between cost and quality is right, and whether current services are delivering the outcome sought by local people.

I referred earlier to the new policy framework within which we expect social services to operate. Central to that policy framework is the development of a new range of intermediate care services designed to prevent avoidable admissions to hospital, to enhance rehabilitation and faster recovery from illness, and to enable as many people as possible to live independently in their own homes. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax is anxious to see development of the new services in Calderdale and to ensure that the budget reductions proposed by the local Conservatives do not impede developments in that important area. I share her concern. We have made significant new resources available through the national health service plan, which are filtering through to services in Calderdale. For example, the Calderdale primary care group will benefit next year from a specific allocation for intermediate care of more than £150,000.

A substantial component of the £900 million announced in the NHS plan relates to resources provided to local government. In determining funding for social services to be made available through the standard spending assessment over the next three years, we took account specifically of additional council investment in services that promote independence, particularly for older people. The local government settlement makes provision for that over the next three years. The deployment of money provided through the standard spending assessment is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax acknowledged, a decision for councils in the light of local circumstances.

There has been significant development in intermediate care services in Calderdale and all the service providers who have been involved in that deserve congratulations. A range of new services is coming on line which will enhance the care and support available to older people. It would be tragic if any of that was put at risk because of short-sighted decisions that local Conservative councillors might be tempted to make.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax has done her constituents a substantial service, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley, in raising these matters this afternoon. We shall continue to take a close interest and watch over what is happening in Calderdale to ensure that the proper national objectives that we have set for social services over the next three years are delivered for the benefit of her constituents and of those of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley.

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