Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.101) (HC 942), on Personal Social Services Performance Grant for 2002-2003

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Roger Casale (Wimbledon): The special grant specified in the report will be very welcome in my constituency in the London borough of Merton. It will receive £165,322 as its share of the £7,927,000 allocated by the special grant to London.

After a highly critical independent review of social services in Merton last year, we are working hard to improve those services, especially children's social services, which were threatened with special measures. This year, the social services department received a zero rating, which in the context of what I have just said represents an improvement. Further improvements will be driven not only by the extra money that the Government are making available through the grant, but by the reforms that they have introduced to the integration of health and social care.

I place on the record the excellent work being done by the Sutton and Merton primary care trust in my constituency. It is based at the Nelson hospital, where I have my constituency office and where I was born—hon. Members will be pleased to know that I have been outside the hospital in the meantime. The hospital will be a focus for the integration of health and social care, and the provision of intermediate care. Indeed, the sort of renovation work and improvements to which the Minister referred are there for everyone to see at that hospital in the heart of my constituency.

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Sutton and Merton was one of the first PCTs in the country and has pioneered new approaches to intermediate care, much of it through investment in IT systems to support the complex administrative processing of intermediate care packages. Merton council social services must take the lead from the PCT as we move to integrate services, tear down the Berlin wall between health and social services in Merton, and replace it with a sophisticated IT-based system, so that we can better manage the practical work of integrating care.

It is good that the Government are not only putting reforms in place, but providing the resources necessary to make them bite. We expect so much from doctors, nurses, administrators, social care workers, ancillary workers and everyone else working in health and social services. We expect them to deliver reform, and this measure is further proof that the Government will not waver in their commitment to reward success, root out failure and back up the reform process with the financial resources necessary to see it through.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is expressing a paean of praise for what the Government are doing. Can he explain why the Labour-controlled local authority of Merton received zero stars, as he said, and the statement in the report that children's services were not serving people well and that adult services were serving only some people well? Why, in his view, is this authority so bad?

Roger Casale: I said that special measures were threatened in Merton, but the Government conducted that inspection as part of their commitment to root out failure. It is no good engaging in party political point scoring by saying, ''Oh well, it's a Labour authority and it's failing'', and leaving it at that. Vulnerable children and families depend on those services, and we have a responsibility to improve them. The point is that the Government have conducted an inspection and changes have been made, but those changes must be backed up by the financial resources necessary to see them through.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I have thought of a reasonably decent idea to help Merton council. Tory-controlled Westminster council should ensure that the £27 million that has still not been paid by its former Tory leader is paid and used to help Merton and other authorities that do not receive as much as Westminster.

Roger Casale: My hon. Friend speaks with first-hand knowledge of my constituency. He addressed my constituency party last year and is well aware of the problems that Merton faces and the fact that we are tackling them. The reforms, and the money being invested to see them through, give me the confidence and the knowledge that we will succeed, and as I said, there have already been improvements. With this measure, I expect to see further improvements in social services in Merton, as they integrate with the health services and, under the Government's watchful eye, the reforms are inspected and monitored.

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I welcome the report and hope that there will be many more such reports in future.

10.55 am

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): Thank you, Mrs. Adams. I welcome you to the Chair on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

I was previously a chair of social services, so I have taken an interest in the special grants that have been awarded over the years. The purpose of the special grant for three-star authorities is that they may

    ''fund locally developed schemes, for or in connection with the provision of relevant services, tailored to the . . . area . . . and designed to improve the performance of the local authority's exercise of their . . . functions.''

The definition of relevant services seems to suggest that they may spend it on anything they like, starting immediately, as long as they inform the Secretary of State by 31 August 2002. But is that what it means? Annex C of the document states that the fund is intended to support the

    ''implementation of the NHS Plan—initially focussing on improving intermediate care performance.''

Which of those is correct? They cannot both be. One and two-star authorities may only spend the funding on

    ''locally developed schemes, for or in connection with intermediate care services, tailored to the particular needs of each local authority's area and designed to improve . . . performance in the delivery of intermediate care services''.

This refers to community care services designed to avoid inappropriate admission or prolong stay or delayed discharge to a hospital, nursing home or residential care.

One and two-star authorities may not start immediately, must have their scheme approved by the Secretary of State and will no doubt be delayed by the approval of arrangements. How long will approval take? A scheme submitted by the deadline of 31 August has less than two months left for working up and is already five months into the financial year. It is no wonder that provision has had to be made for up to 55 per cent. carry over of unspent funds. If we were awarding stars to the Department of Health, it would have no stars for timely provision and no stars for ''likely to improve''.

We are all in favour of good-quality intermediate care services, but will the grants achieve it? How will they put right the 300 per cent. increase in speech and therapy vacancies or the 43 per cent. increase in physiotherapy vacancies between 1999 and 2001? In Stockport, where I was chair of social services, there has been excellent joint working between the health authority and social services to avoid bed blocking. Its delayed discharge figure of only 1.8 per cent., supplied in an answer to parliamentary question No. 43988, is already good. Stockport is only a one-star authority but it has a good record in this area. Three-star Kensington and Chelsea and three-star Westminster in the Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster health authority have a 9.8 per cent. delayed discharge rate in the same period; that is five and a half times as many as Stockport. Haringey had an 11.7 per cent. delayed

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discharge rate in the same period and the health authority including Merton had a 7.7 per cent. delayed discharge.

How is it that authorities with a problem can spend on anything they like while places that have prioritised the very issue that the Government claim to want to support are made to go through the hoops? Are more such anomalies to be found? I think that that is another no stars for appropriate provision and I fear that the Department is unlikely to improve.

When I asked in parliamentary question No. 42843 how much had been given to local authorities in ring-fenced grants by service area since 1997, I received a full and timely answer from the DTLR, which gets three stars for a good service. It told me:

    ''The Government have made clear in the Local Government White Paper 'Strong Local Leadership—Quality Public Services' that it will restrict ring-fencing to cases which are genuine high priorities for Government and where we cannot achieve our policy goal by securing output or outcome targets. We will be keeping all ring-fencing under review with the aim of removing it as soon as it is possible to do so.'' —[Official Report, 19 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 225W.]

I applaud that answer. It is perfectly in line with the views of the Liberal Democrats that one-off, ring-fenced grants are an abomination. The figures tell a different story, however. Ring-fenced grants in social services went from a total of £518 million in 1997-98, to £660 million in 1998-99 and £911.7 million in 1999-2000. In the run up to the general election in 2000-01 the figure was £1.14 billion and in 2001-02 it was £1.3 billion. It does not feel as though the Department of Health is heeding the policy. Again that gets no stars.

On 2 January I asked for a statement about the methodology used to derive the allocation for 2002-03, as indicated in the document entitled ''Improving Social Services for Older People''. That was parliamentary question No. 28289. The answer that I received on 12 March, after several phone calls to the Minister's office and one from the Minister's office asking for the title of the document, which they had lost, did not give the methodology. I tried again. On 18 March in parliamentary question No. 43988 I asked the Minister to publish the methodology used. I received the reply that

    ''The methodology and information used has been placed in the library''—[Official Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 176W.]

Up to last night the methodology had not been placed in the Library. This morning I received by fax an indication of the methodology. It refers to hot-spot councils. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what that means.

The totals cover another factor of which the Minister is no doubt aware. There is wide variation in the increases in ring-fenced grants awarded to local authorities. Over the period 1997-2001, Lib-Dem controlled Stockport saw its personal social services ring-fenced grants increase by 86 per cent. Grants to Labour-controlled Trafford went up by 90.4 per cent. and Labour-controlled Bury by 94 per cent. Grants to Sefton, where there is no overall control, but Labour is the largest group, increased by 100 per cent. Grants

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to Labour-controlled Dudley increased by 107 per cent. and to Labour-controlled Wigan went up by 130 per cent. Solihull, which was Conservative controlled in 2002, but had no overall control in 1997, went up by 153.8 per cent.

I chose those examples because they are in the comparator basket of authorities with Stockport. It is relevant to compare what they are getting. In the absence of an indication of how those grants have been awarded, it would be easy to draw a false conclusion about how the money has been allocated. The pattern also holds true for the large cities: grants to Lib-Dem controlled Liverpool went up by 152.8 per cent., but Labour-controlled Birmingham, which received an enormous £27.6 million, soared to 181.6 per cent above its 1997-98 figure.

The plain fact is that until now—and I have had this document for only half an hour—hon. Members could not tell from the figures how those amounts were arrived at. We are talking about serious sums of money. The total amount spent on ring-fenced funding in 2001-02 was £4.9 billion. Some £1.3 billion of that was for personal social services. Those are budget-distorting sums that can make a good local authority appear bad at money management when it receives less than it has anticipated, or that can hide poor practice or even embarrassment. I would be prepared to believe that there were good reasons for those apparent coincidences, if the Department of Health had responded quickly when I asked for the methodology used to derive some of the allocations.

The Government say that they are opposed to ring-fenced grants. The Minister has many questions to answer, and although the Department of Health has not covered itself in glory, I am prepared to award her a ''willing to improve'' rating, albeit with no stars, if she answers them. In what sense are the grants to be applied only to cases that are ''genuine high priorities'' when the star rating system in operation does not recognize existing good practice? Will she say how she arrived at the statement in annex C that:

    ''All councils get a fair share of the fund''?

Will she publish the methodology for these and previous grants? In what sense can paying for additional equipment, or for education, training and personal development for staff, be regarded as a reward? How can improving the working environment for staff be regarded as a reward?

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