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11.56 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am delighted to take part in the debate. It was in danger of becoming an all-Essex affair, with so many Essex boys in the Chamber.

I want to raise an issue that is important for my constituency and for Oxfordshire as a whole: that of adult placements, the social service function that is a form of foster care for those over 18. It is provided under the aegis of social services in Oxfordshire, as it is around the country.

I cannot mention social services without making a brief reference to the funding crisis that Oxfordshire faces. "Crisis" is an over-used word, but I believe that it applies to social service spending in the county of Oxfordshire.

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Although we are spending £20 million more than what the Government think we should spend—the standard spending assessment—damaging cuts are being made to home care, respite centres and other support for children. Many of the most vulnerable people in our community are suffering from such cuts. We have launched a campaign in Oxfordshire, particularly among Conservative Members, to ask the Government to think again about the funding of social services. That campaign will continue. The Government must react and relent.

The issue that I intend to raise tonight is not funding, but regulation. I say to the Deputy Leader of the House on the Front Bench that it is a matter which the Government can sort out. Adult placements are a very small part of social services provision in Oxfordshire, as they are in the rest of the country. The budget in Oxfordshire is less than £1 million, and it is not being cut. There are 94 carers in Oxfordshire who take adult placements, and they look after some 250 users across the county.

Who are the users? Some are people who were previously in foster homes with families, who have now turned 18; some come from care homes; some have learning or other difficulties; and some have been referred from the mental health care trust. They are all people who have had a difficult start in life. Many cannot cope entirely on their own, and need love and care. The people who look after them are, in my view, heroes and heroines in our society.

The carers provide care and love in their homes—not in an institution, but in a family and a home setting. They provide an excellent service not only for those who are placed there—people who have had a bad start in life—but for all of us. Just consider the huge cost if all those people had to be in institutions of one kind or another. It is therefore a service that we should support.

So what is the problem? Quite simply, it is that the providers of adult placements have been made subject to the Care Standards Act 2000 and must register with the National Care Standards Commission. I do not believe that the Government intended to over-regulate the sector. Indeed, in one of their many documents, "Care Homes for Younger Adults", they say:

Those are fine words, but I am afraid that what has happened is quite the opposite. The adult placements have been completely overburdened and the situation will get worse, as I hope to show.

We all want the highest standards in social services and proper safeguards. We all know what can go wrong if the wrong sort of people are put in charge or there are no proper inspections. Having considered the problem, however, I believe that it is unnecessary for adult placement providers to register with the National Care Standards Commission and to be registered under the Care Standards Act 2000.

On Friday, I met social services representatives in Oxford. They explained what happens to people who volunteer to take on an adult placement. They must be assessed in a process that involves more than 40 hours of interviews. They supply references from two referees, one of whom is interviewed by social services. Their home is visited by social services and the decision about whether they can take an adult placement is decided by a panel.

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It is right that the process is long, as those involved will be looking after vulnerable people in their own homes. Indeed, it resembles the process associated with adoption or becoming a foster parent, as it is very rigorous and involves the most rigorous checks. We can see that that already happens, even before we consider the Care Standards Act and the National Care Standards Commission—the new pieces of bureaucracy that the Government have put in the way of the adult placement service. That is why they are making a fundamental mistake. They are dealing not with care homes, but with the homes of ordinary people in which caring is taking place. Those two things are not the same.

I recognise that it is not enough to say that that extra bureaucracy is unnecessary; I want to show that it is damaging. I should like briefly to quote a letter that I received from social services:

I repeat that these are ordinary people who are taking adult placements in their own homes. The letter continues:

I must report that since that letter was written, we have lost six of our 94 carers. People who have been cared for in private homes will be put into institutions because of the new regulations and bureaucracy. Those are real people and they are subject to real effects. What is happening is not necessary and it is not progress.

I say to the Government that it is not too late to act and I shall suggest the remedy in a minute or two. First, I shall explain how the registration process and standards are causing the services to be withdrawn. I shall begin by pointing out the extent of the paperwork. Let us assume that we belong to a family that wants to take an adult placement. We have been in the process for many years and been inspected by social services, had the interviews and been in front of the panel. The matter has been agreed, but this new bureaucracy has suddenly come into our lives. First, we get a registration pack, which is about an inch thick. We then have to look through the national minimum standards for care homes, which are 75 pages long. We then receive the national minimum standards for adult placements, which are another 40 pages. As if that is not enough, we then have to read the care homes regulations, many of which apply to us—a further 27 pages. That is 142 pages landing on somebody's doormat. Imagine the impact on the families that have been providing adult placements for years, but suddenly face all that bureaucracy.

My next point concerns bureaucracy. At the end of the national minimum standards—I have been through them very carefully, as you would expect Mr. Deputy Speaker—there is a set of policies that someone accepting adult placements must accept. There are 33 of them. Let us remember that we are talking about a family home; it would have to accept policies on communicable diseases, infection control, equal opportunities and race equality, food safety and nutrition, individual planning and review,

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and whistleblowing—there has to be a policy on whistleblowing. An ordinary family must have policies on all those things.

Mr. Francois: That is madness.

Mr. Cameron: It is madness, as my hon. Friend says.

The third reason that all this is unnecessary and, more than that, damaging is the extra cost involved. I am talking about the extra cost not of bringing in the standards, but of registering. That used to be £1,000 per scheme, so the Oxfordshire scheme would have to register, and it would have cost £1,000. Under the new rules, each provider must register at a cost of £100. If there were 90 of them, that would cost £9,000. That is another extra cost for the providers of this very useful service.

Next, I shall deal with some of the policies and standards. I shall start with registration. Someone who wants to provide this service might already have been a foster parent for many years and their child might just have turned 18. They would get a document through their door from the National Care Standards Commission, which states:

That is tough stuff. They will have to do all those things. The next page of the document states:

and so it goes on and on. There are about 20 different long documents to which an ordinary family taking someone in would have to refer. I can think of nothing more likely to put off the people who provide that excellent service. There is evidence that that is already happening, and we are already seeing the service being withdrawn.

The rest of the standards—the minimum standards that the Government have produced—contain many sensible and good things. A lot are, I have to accept, a statement of the obvious. For example, standard 13 states:

Those are statements of the obvious, and perhaps unnecessary if someone has already had their 40 hours from the social services department and been passed by a panel.

Some of the standards dwell slightly on the legalistic aspect and almost appear to be trying to set up a legal tension between the adult who is being placed and the person providing the service. There is a lot of talk about "Service User Plans", and I worry that the person being placed might feel that the process would be open to legal challenge. As I have said, however, it is not the standards that are wrong but the enormous amount of bureaucracy with which people providing this service will have to deal.

I say all this with some urgency, because I believe that things are going to get worse. I mentioned briefly the position of foster carers. Let us imagine foster carers with one or perhaps two children with them. When those children turn 18, the carers will suddenly have to register

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and do all those things. In one case in Oxfordshire, this has already happened; the parents have thrown in the towel and the child will have to go into an institution. It is a tragedy when that happens, because it is completely unnecessary.

The other reason I think things are going to get worse is—as Oxfordshire social services department has told me—that there are more standards to come. We shall have a whole new set of these things for domiciliary care—for when we are caring for someone in their home rather than in our own—and there will be yet another set of standards for day care.

Let us take the example of a registered provider who has adult placements. Let us assume that he or she cares for some people overnight in his or her own home, offers some day care, and sometimes goes to people's homes to provide domiciliary care for them. That provider will have to work through and be inspected under another three sets of standards.

The answer to this problem is simple: the Government should say that it is not necessary for adult placements to be registered under the Care Standards Act 2000, and that the Act does not apply to them. They should also not have to be inspected by the National Care Standards Commission, because they are already policed effectively by social services.

Let me give just one example—children's services. Each social services department's fostering scheme is regulated and registered by the new bodies, but that does not apply to each foster parent. Why can we not do the same in the case of adult placements? It makes sense. The services I have mentioned are dealt with in that way. Care homes, rightly, are registered nationally and must be inspected by the new bodies; foster parents are not. Surely the same should apply to adults.

I ask the deputy Leader of the House to consider this over the summer as a matter of urgency. I think that the Government have made a mistake. I do not think they meant to get it wrong; they simply opted for unnecessary over-regulation, which is damaging a service provided in Oxfordshire for some of the most vulnerable people—people who need our help. That is a tragedy that we could do without.

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