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2.52 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for raising the important matter of social services in West Berkshire. He will not be surprised to know that I take a different view from his, particularly on issues such as performance management and how we monitor the effective delivery of social services. I shall deal shortly with that and with his well-expressed and accurate points about funding. He is the sort of Member who will have taken the time to read the White Paper that we published in December, and he will know our stated view about the inadequacies of the local government financial system and our determination to produce a fairer and more easily comprehensible system of funding local government services.

The ability of local authorities to discharge their social services functions is affected by two important considerations. The first is the financial resources available to them. The Government provide a substantial proportion of those resources through the local government financial settlement. Although the hon. Gentleman did not say so, we have steadily increased the resources going into social services, including those for his authority.

Secondly, local social services will be heavily influenced by the overall decisions that the local authorities take about the priority, organisation and efficiency of those services. The Government for their part, through a combination of new legislation and other measures, have taken positive action to ensure that local councils have new means at their disposal to improve the quality, consistency and flexibility of local social services.

All these additional powers and freedoms are available to West Berkshire council and should be considered by the council as part of its strategy for improving the services available to local people. So while I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns over resources, he and others must not fall into the trap of simply assuming that all these problems can be addressed only through the local government financial settlement. I simply do not believe that that is true.

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In that context, the hon. Member, together with leaders of the council and senior officers, recently met my fellow Minister of State, my hon Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), to discuss the overall state of social service provision in West Berkshire. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who sadly is no longer with us, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) also attended that meeting. My hon. Friend the Minister of State made several suggestions about how the council might improve the position.

My hon. Friend suggested, for example, that the council consider the benefits of using the legal powers contained in the Health Act 1999 to improve partnership working with the local NHS as well as care trust status under the Health and Social Care Act 2001. My hon. Friend also drew the council's attention to the opportunities presented by public-private partnerships to attract extra investment in social care. She also drew their attention to the new pathfinder programme administered by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions as a way of further improving the delivery of social services. I have not heard from the council, and I do not think that the Department has heard back either, about those issues, but I hope that the council has been considering how best to exploit those opportunities as a way of improving both the quality and value for money of social service delivery in West Berkshire.

At least half the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Newbury today were about local government finance and the way in which social services funding is provided to West Berkshire. I want to deal fully with the concerns that he has raised.

To put the matter in context, nationally, resources for personal social services have increased by more than 20 per cent. in real terms between 1996–97 and 2002–03—an average real-terms increase of more than 3 per cent. per annum. For historical purposes, it is important to compare and contrast that with the record of the previous Administration between 1992 and 1996–97. The comparable average annual real-terms growth figure was only 0.1 per cent.—virtually no real-terms growth.

West Berkshire has benefited significantly from this investment in social services. This year, on a like-for-like basis, the council received an increase of more than 8.5 per cent. in its total personal social services resources, including an increase of more than 6 per cent. in its personal social services SSA. In cash terms, the overall PSS funding for the council has increased from £15.8 million when the council was established as a unitary authority in 1997 to £21.2 million in 2002–03. I am not a great mathematician, but my arithmetic tells me that that is an increase of more than a third in cash terms since 1996–97. That is not an unreasonable overall increase; it is a very good increase, and I do not recall the hon. Member for Newbury referring to it at all.

We are continuing to increase the funding. Next year—2002–03—on a like-for-like basis, West Berkshire's PSS funding will increase by about 6.6 per cent. I believe that people of good will across the House and outside will regard those increases as significant. It is not just the SSA that has increased as there have been significant increases

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in the council's carers and children's grants, and a doubling in the new grant designed to help deal with problems associated with delayed discharges from hospital. This year, for example, the council received £258,000 through this new grant. Next year that will double to more than £500,000.

The hon. Gentleman referred to problems of the relationship between social services and the NHS. The new money has helped, for example, to reduce delayed discharges at the Royal Berkshire and Battle trust from 19 in October to three. That is real and positive progress.

With that money, the council has been able to support an extra 27 residential and nursing home placements as well as supporting care home owners by increasing fees, helping to stabilise the local care home sector. I am glad to say, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me, that the fee level is now the same in each of the three authorities in the west of Berkshire. That is an important thing to have achieved, and I congratulate the council on it. The number of nursing home places in West Berkshire, as reported by the council, has remained constant since spring last year. That is very welcome, too.

The council is also providing a new home- from-hospital service to enable people to get back on their feet, an enhanced home care service for those people with greater needs, extending the working hours of the rapid response team to enable diversion from hospital admission where appropriate, and additional staff to undertake assessments in hospital to manage the throughput of patients at times of peak demand. Those are valuable additional services.

It is wrong to imply that nothing is currently being done to help West Berkshire with extra funding. That is not true. We are taking action to improve the resources available to the council and, thanks to the way in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has presided over the economy, we can look forward to continuing improvements in the area.

Of course, we appreciate the commitment and priority most councils are giving to personal social services and recognise that social services departments face increased demand for services. That is especially true in West Berkshire. That is why we are working closely with the Local Government Association to identify the underlying source of that pressure on social services. We will be considering the outcome in the context of the 2002 spending review.

As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions published a White Paper in December, setting out proposals for a better way to fund local government. In particular, the Government are determined to simplify the methodology for distributing the general revenue grant so that it is more easily understood. We are also determined to reduce the amount of local government funding that is ring-fenced, especially for councils which are performing well, so that local government has more flexibility to make available funds to deal with local priorities. That will also help to reduce the bureaucracy associated with administering each grant, by reducing the number of plans required from councils.

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In relation to reform of the general grant allocation formulae, the Department of Health has already commissioned independent research into all four of the current social services standard spending assessment formulae, with the aim of introducing improved formulae for 2003-04—the financial year after the one that we are about to enter. The Department is working closely with the Local Government Association on that research, and we shall of course share the research findings, both with local government and with hon. Members, when they become available in the spring. I hope that will enable a proper debate to take place on the new formulae before they are announced in November.

The hon. Gentleman asked why West Berkshire, in his analysis, receives comparatively less Government support than other local authorities. It does not. The hon. Gentleman has failed to take into account—although he acknowledged it in passing—the fact that West Berkshire is a relatively wealthy and affluent area, a fact made clear in the measurements of deprivation produced by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. In respect of employment and income, the vast majority of wards in West Berkshire are among the most affluent in the country. As I said earlier, it is right that that fact should be acknowledged in any rational funding formula.

The Government allocate general revenue resources to local councils using needs based formulae, which have been developed over the years by independent research. The formulae apply equally to all councils—West Berkshire is not being picked on and treated in a discriminatory fashion—so that after making allowances for the size and needs of an area, all councils receive the same level of funding relative to need. We would not, therefore, expect West Berkshire to receive the same level of funding on a per capita basis as, for example, Liverpool or—more locally—Slough—

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