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12 Mar 2003 : Column 103WH—continued

Supporting People

2 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to have secured this debate because we are less than a month away from some momentous changes. I congratulate the Government on the initiative that they have taken in pulling together services for vulnerable people. Many older people are not vulnerable, but the changes will impact most on the older generation. The debate will give us the opportunity to discuss both the principles and the detail of the changes.

I have just returned from a conference this morning organised by the Hanover group, at which I chaired a meeting on the single assessment process. It is quite difficult to separate the supporting people initiative from the single assessment process, which I shall mention again later. The keynote message that I received from those at the conference was that they welcomed the changes, but they were worried that the profile was not as high among the general public as it could and should be. I hope that, with this debate, we can put that right.

I would not pretend that I have a considerable background in this area, but I have a long relationship with Care and Repair, the main home improvement agency in Stroud, and I am a long-standing committee member of Stroud Age Concern. Towards the end of my remarks, I want to discuss mental health and disability issues, although those are not the Minister's main concern. I shall mainly address the way in which the changes will affect housing, and home improvement agencies in particular.

I thank the Government for entering into a long period of consultation. I was pleased that Bert Provon, who is, I understand, head of the supporting people initiative within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, was able to visit Stroud about 18 months ago, at the instigation of the Minister's predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for International Development. Mr. Provon met people from the sheltered housing community, which will undergo some fairly considerable changes as a result of the initiative.

I should like to thank the people who helped me to prepare for the debate: Sue Adams and Jane Creed of Care and Repair, Jon Shaw of Stroud district council, Alistair Shute and Gary Thorogood, who work as part of the supporting people team in the county of Gloucestershire, and my friend Chas Townley, who was involved in the South Gloucestershire supporting people team.

I shall first map out the context fairly quickly, then I shall look at the progress that has been made and the implications of the changes, and finally I shall examine some issues in greater detail, starting with the impact of what I see as the key vehicle for change—housing. The original document, "Supporting People", published in December 1998, was a pioneering piece of thinking. It has taken us four and a bit years to get to the stage that we are at now, but we must look back and remind ourselves how important those statements were.

The system will change according to four key principles. First, people will be put first, so that the funding is with the people rather than with the system.

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Secondly, the needs of the most vulnerable people will be highlighted, which will include those outside the normal group, such as rough sleepers, drug users and ex-offenders. Such people do not necessarily fall under the catch-all phrase of vulnerable people, but they will now be part of the changes relating to supporting people. Thirdly, there will be reprioritisation of high quality services and clarification of funding arrangements. Lastly, there will be a logical and transparent approach to planning those services, which will be done in a much more rational, consistent and, dare I say it, integrated manner.

I shall consider those principles in more detail. First, the idea of putting people first is being handled through major budgetary changes. Transitional housing benefit levels determine the size of local funding. It is pleasing that the criticisms that I have heard voiced have not been over that issue. This matter is complex, and the criticisms are mainly detailed. The overall question is what will happen after the transitional period. Perhaps the Minister can give a guarantee that once we get through that period there will be no attempt to claw back resources.

Secondly, the reprioritisation of what is meant by a vulnerable group is obviously a grey area, because it is always possible to include some groups and exclude others. I shall say more about how one can begin to find more moneys for such groups. However, the main argument that has been made to me is that financial help for those groups should not be found at the expense of existing arrangements. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that too.

The third point, about high quality services, pulls together the first two points and the argument that I am advancing, which is that we need to clarify the funding streams after the transitional period to make it clear that those local pots of money will be sacrosanct and will, I hope, increase over time. However, I should like to know to what extent, once there is even greater devolution of responsibility to the local level, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will continue to monitor individual cases to ensure that the money reaches the front line, rather than getting lost somewhere in the system.

That links directly to the last point, which is about how we can make the planning system more integrated. I suppose that the matter will come to a head when we consider the introduction of the needs-based formula, which, I understand—the Minister may correct me—will come into play in 2006. Again, some important changes relating to overall funding are under way, and they will impact on planning.

A considerable sum—in the order of £1.4 billion—has been set aside for the supporting people initiative. There is some tension between the centre and the localities about how much direction there should be. There is evidence that some of the new arrangements are already causing difficulty. There is, for example, an implication that to find new moneys one has to go along with the Government's idea that savings of 2.5 per cent. must be found. I accept that money can always be reallocated, but there are many differences around the country, and local authorities operate in a variety of ways. It is questionable that all of them can find the money and whether that is the best way to pump-prime new

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initiatives. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the savings situation will relate to the funding of local authorities.

There is some concern, as is evident from numerous websites that I have consulted, about the readiness of each area for the start of the initiative, which is now only weeks away. The problem is not how we communicate the fact that the changes are taking place but how we simplify their complexity to reduce the risk of people feeling that they are not for the better. It would be a shame if that were the feeling because most people in the field are very supportive in principle. We must try to get right our communications strategy.

Looking specifically at home improvement agencies, we welcome the fact that the money is being ring-fenced from the outset, but it is not entirely good news. I have been, as I mentioned, at Hanover housing association conference, looking at changes in the way that we assess the needs of people in hospital. It was bluntly put to me that the housing association, one of the smaller providers of home improvements, with 10 or 12 schemes, is in deficit. Because it is now clearer about the likely funding stream, it is threatening to pull out of home improvement. That is not good news, and I hope that the threat is designed to sort out the problem, rather than to be carried through. As I said, Hanover is a small provider; most home improvement agencies are sponsored directly by local authorities. The biggest provider is Anchor Housing Association, which has not made any criticisms. We should be aware that in one of the key areas of delivery there is concern among those through whom delivery will take place.

There is a link to another problem. Under the previous Government, there was a view that home improvement agencies would largely be funded by the state, but that there would also be some attempt to derive income from fees. I can give a clear account of how difficult it has been to organise that in my local care and repair agency. The assumption has been that some £6 million will be raised nationally through fee income, and in a sense it is pleasing that that is no longer the case—the £6 million appears somehow to have been lost amid the calculations. Unless the Minister tells us otherwise, agencies will lose the ability to raise money through fees, and that is probably right, but it could add to the pressure on them, with adverse consequences.

Although I am talking principally about the tenancy sector, I shall spend a little time discussing sheltered housing. I am a great advocate of sheltered housing as the answer to many of our problems in this regard. I have debated it before; it is moving with the times and is becoming more attuned to the need to link with social services and health. Some areas use the term "ultra-sheltered housing". In my area we call it very sheltered housing. Both are important in the context of supporting people schemes, because the funding stream, although it now comes under one heading, will be split between the different functions of sheltered housing. There will clearly be some difficulties because new tenants will be treated differently from existing tenants. As with all changes in regulations or in Government policy, the initiative cannot be retrospective; nor can we pretend that it should be rolled forward indefinitely.

I am a little concerned that trying to disaggregate some of the costs to make it clearer what people are paying, and why, will make it more difficult to cross-

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subsidise, which is not always a good thing. More particularly, I am worried that people will end up facing a stark picture of what they will have to pay for each of the various services, which could be rather a disincentive for them to go into sheltered accommodation. That is the last thing that the Government would want. They, like me, see such accommodation as an important route for people who want to move away from owner-occupier status or some forms of renting into a more appropriate property—usually something smaller. Again, I would like an assurance about whether new tenants will be treated in a similar way to those who have that protection under existing arrangements.

Rents have risen. In my area, that is partly because we are also undergoing rent restructuring—another reason why the picture is so complex. A whole raft of changes is being made at the same time. The supporting people budget includes everything except accommodation—I am sure that civil servants will find that far too simple an explanation—and we must ensure that everything else, such as payments for those who manage the facilities and other associated expenses, will be treated separately. However, we must remember that making the different streams of funding more obvious could put people off.

Having spoken to many people, I find that the danger of disaggregation is worst for those who do not receive housing benefit. I am aware that some of those people will still be helped under the supporting people budget because of the different ways in which it will be able to measure who is eligible for help. The last thing that we want is for people who are not eligible for help to be asked to pay such steep charges that they might think it wrong for them to be housed in sheltered accommodation. More important, such people may not go there in the first place. I am sorry to have taken so much time to make that point, but it is crucial. We are talking about a significant number of people. It is a route that we should explore again; sheltered accommodation is a highly sensible and sensitive way to house older people and other vulnerable groups, and we should not make it prohibitive.

By chance, the conference made clear the link between the supporting people programme and the changes involved in the single assessment process. I know that the Minister is not solely responsible for the initiative, and he may be grateful for that because it is complex. However, the overlap with the changes involved in the single assessment process adds to the complexity, and we should try to cut through that complexity.

I hope that individual assessments will be conducted with due regard to the supporting people arrangements. More particularly, I hope that the professionals involved will meet to exchange information. The question of what information may be exchanged is one that has recently emerged for society to deal with, and we shall have to be careful about that in the present context. Data protection is relevant, as is the natural resistance of some people to undergoing the assessments. I know that concern has been expressed about the reason for the review process. There is obviously a conspiracy theory, but people who will clearly remain within the criteria for the funding that the state has always provided are concerned. Some people are suspicious and will not, therefore, willingly participate.

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If nothing else, we need to make sure that the teams doing the work—and they are teams—communicate with one another and share information. The aim is to make the arrangements as seamless as possible for those to whom they will apply. Not only should people be in the most appropriate accommodation, but, for those who spend time in hospital, we should be studying approaches to their leaving hospital. We need to get rid of the dreadful notion—I never want to use the term, but there is no better one—of bed blockers. Help should be provided in discharging people from hospital and ensuring that they go to the best, most appropriate accommodation.

That is the essence of the single assessment process. In its broader approach, which needs to be improved, it provides links and support. It is a matter of diversity and choice, to use the terminology regularly used by the Government. People must have choice, so a range of different services must be available.

I said that I would comment on mental health and learning disabilities. One of the best aspects of the initiative is that it does not only involve changes to funding for older persons' care; as well as considering groups that have traditionally fallen outside the net, we are also thinking about groups that never did, but were probably dealt with in the Cinderella part of the service. Those groups include people with mental health difficulties and people with learning disabilities.

I have noticed that residential homes meant principally, but not entirely, for those with learning disabilities, have reclassified themselves to enable people to claim transitional housing benefit. That is a good thing. It encourages independence and new ways of going on and living life. All that I ask is that the Government make it clear that they do not intend suddenly to drop the portcullis and try to reclaim money. The arrangement is expensive. It applies to people who, traditionally, have not been able to obtain additional funding by using housing benefit avenue. We need to make it clear that we shall continue to treat it as appropriate and allow them to draw those funds.

I welcome the permitted earnings changes that the Government have pioneered to allow people with mental health difficulties to earn money and to go through a transition back to work. I should like things to be made clear. Housing benefit should not be affected, but other benefits are. I mention the matter to the Minister, although it is not his responsibility but that of the Department for Work and Pensions. We need to ensure that Departments are talking to one another.

We are talking largely about people in some form of specialised housing, and we must ensure that they continue to receive support and that assistance is not taken away from them as a result of any reduction in the supporting people budget. There is much detail to consider, and I make no apology for doing so. If my constituency can be used as an exemplar, I am pleased, because we have found more accommodation in supported lodgings. However, that comes at a price and we must ensure that the stream of money is not suddenly cut short for any reason. The Minister will need to have a dialogue principally with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, although there

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could also be health-related matters, depending on the nature of the illness from which a person suffers. I hope that the matter can be clarified.

Some of the Government's motives, including those concerning the amount that they are contributing, have been questioned, but I think that they should be congratulated. The saddest part of the process relates to the notion of pipeline schemes, whereby we would find new ways of arranging care and would encourage health, service services, housing and, under its aegis, the voluntary sector, to work in different ways.

By chance, I was talking to the director of social services for Leicester city council, Andrew Cozens, who is an old friend of mine because he used to be the director of social services at Gloucestershire county council. He said that the council bid for £4 million for pipeline schemes and received £40,000. He felt that social services could find some money through savings. He said that he had set great store by some of the new initiatives that he wanted to undertake, but that was the response that he received. I would like some guarantee that the pipeline schemes, which are at the really innovative and integrative end of the work that needs to be undertaken, will not be denuded of funds, because that would prevent the implementation of the changes of which the Government have spoken.

To conclude, I hope that the Minister will respond to the following issues that I have highlighted. First, how are we trying to improve co-ordination between at least three Departments, and local authorities and the voluntary sector? As I have said, the complexity of the issues is causing confusion and the message is not getting across. That is true not only of the supporting people initiative but of the single assessment programme.

Secondly, to take matters forward, we need security of funding into and after the transitional period. Many of the people to whom I have spoken told me that they are holding fire and have negotiated one-year contracts. With the best will in the world, because of the nature of the work that is being undertaken, they cannot keep renewing one-year contracts. We need some guarantees about where funding will come from. We need to know what shape the new funding formula will take, how we will consult on it and whether 2006 is a realistic deadline for putting it together.

Lastly, there is the fact that we are trying to change the whole working culture of the various professions involved. The area has been bedevilled by people working in their own particular field and not sharing information more widely. How can we make progress on that, given the problems that I have highlighted, including information sharing and the operation of different budgets? How can we overcome those problems?

I will finish as I started by saying that the Government should be congratulated on taking the initiative. The move is long overdue, and they have a lot of guts to see it through, because we can see why it has not been done before. If the Government communicate more widely to the general public why and how the programme is happening, today's debate will have served a purpose. I hope that, with the other contributions, we can use today as an opportunity to take forward this important change.

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2.30 pm

Matthew Green (Ludlow): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing a debate on an important and complex subject. He has shown a detailed mastery of the complexities of a subject with which, I suspect, few people could cope.

We welcome the steps that the Government are taking. The ideas of inter-agency work, putting funds into a single budget and bringing the management under a single committee are welcome. I remember early steps towards such a system in Herefordshire when the Liberal Democrat-controlled council merged the social services and housing departments. The council chief executive became the joint chief executive with what was then the Herefordshire health authority, which worked well until the health authority was abolished to make way for the strategic health authorities. The general principle of trying to bring the various agencies together to secure support in housing vulnerable people is welcome, and the Government have taken a bold step towards it. In the light of that, I hope that the Minister will take my questions as an attempt genuinely to be helpful in teasing out some of the problems. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, and he probably suspects that I never aim genuinely to be helpful. He will have to take it on face value that I am.

The primary area of concern is about the budget. Age Concern, and other bodies, have expressed unease since the beginning of the consultation stage about the introduction of a cash-limited budget compared with the previous open-ended funding through housing benefit. There is a contradiction between a needs-led approach, which is welcome, and a cash-limited budget, so will the Minister assure us that it will not lead to problems for the agencies?

The Minister may recall that I wrote to him recently, after I received a letter from Bridgnorth district council. In the letter, Councillor Jenny Collingridge, who is chair of the council's community improvement programme, raised the problem of the budget. She wrote:


That is an important concern that is not being taken into account. Perhaps the new funding formula will solve that by 2006. I hope that the Minister will deal with that in a bit of detail.

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The Minister's reply dated 10 February reads:

I had a meeting with Bridgnorth district council officers and members on Monday and they have not heard anything. I asked my researcher to delve around and her note presciently says:

We are now in March. Perhaps there has been an announcement and the Minister will leap to his feet to tell me that I am wrong. We would obviously welcome that information as soon as possible so that the councils can focus on implementation.

My second area of concern, which again was raised by Age Concern, is how support needs are prioritised. The fear is that certain vulnerable groups, which have traditionally been a low priority for local authorities such as ex-offenders, young people leaving care and single homeless people, will lose out in the allocation of resources because of the pressure on local authorities' budgets. In a sense, that comes back to the concern about the cash limiting of the budget. I realise that there have to be limits on how much can be spent in broad terms but budgets are now defined and the housing benefit budget, which previously was open ended, will not be available in quite the same way.

My third area of concern, which I have also written to the Minister about, is the constitution of the committee that will administer these matters. I shall quote from a letter written last February to the former Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), by Roger Walker, the Labour leader of Shropshire county council. He wrote:

Shropshire is obviously a two-tier area. The letter continues:

That letter is a year old, but the letter from the Bridgnorth district council is only a couple of months old. That council makes the same point about the role

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of elected members and the voting rights of officers. The Minister's response confused us. In his letter of 10 February, he says:

However, we learned from the other letter that they can act only for each authority rather than voting for the body as a whole. The letter continues:

That is fine, but unless the voting rights are sorted out, the body cannot take strategic decisions effectively.

We continue to seek clarification from the Minister, because we want this Government initiative to work. We want to help it to work, but there are genuine concerns about whether it will be the success that it deserves to be in the long run, or whether it will not deliver in the way in which many of us, including many organisations and agencies, hope it will. For the sake of vulnerable people and their needs, I hope that the Minister will address my points and the detailed points made by the hon. Member for Stroud in his thoughtful contribution.

2.41 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate and on the comprehensive way in which he dealt with a complicated subject. Both he and the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) have done the House a service by covering the subject in such detail. I shall therefore be able to reduce considerably what I was going to say. However, I fear that form and convention require me to say something.

The debate is welcome, and I am glad that it was selected, but we would have benefited from a statement, as their lordships did on 20 February during the recess. After all, the programme affects the housing of 1 million people, and has a £50 million impact on local government funding. There is bound to be a huge consensus throughout the House, and I do not disagree with anything that has been said so far.

The programme is a great opportunity to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people by providing a stable environment and greater independence. I wholly support that laudable objective. The existing system for providing services is hampered by overlapping and complex funding streams. It is much easier to secure funding for some forms of housing, but much more difficult for others. There is a lack of focus on quality, and a lack of ownership and responsibility. There is certainly no transparency in the allocation of funds. Therefore, there is no question of the need for this reform and the opportunity that it affords. There is, however, a question of whether we are ready for implementation from 1 April. We seek reassurance from the Minister about how ready we are.

I would like the Minister to answer several questions that I fear overlap with questions that have already been asked, but I would be interested to hear his responses. I fully understand that he might not have all the answers

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to hand this afternoon, but it may be possible for him to write to hon. Members with the answers afterwards. Will he tell us how many significant changes have been made to the guidelines and the guidance issued to local authorities in, say, the past four months? Will he also say what the implications of those changes are? How many local authorities have and, perhaps even more importantly, have not yet agreed contracts and pricing schedules with service providers? Can the Minister reassure us about the robustness of estimates of support costs? I ask that as there is evidence that providers have been underestimating those costs to maximise the receipt of housing benefit subsequently. That will clearly have implications later for the adequacy of funding.

The announcement of 20 February arrived with an appendix listing the grants, which is now available in an excellent document produced by the Library in preparation for this 90-minute debate. Unfortunately, I was handed it only as I sat down for the debate. That strikes me as extraordinary, because I visited the Library on Monday evening to ask for a briefing for the debate, and was directed by e-mail to a couple of websites, which I subsequently visited. As I had asked for a briefing for the debate, surely it should not have been beyond the wit of someone to let me know subsequently when the briefing was available.

Setting that aside, I have a question about the list of grants to local authorities. I wonder whether the Minister might answer it. I did a little number crunching, and it appears that the grants available to Conservative-controlled county councils are, on average, £1.3 million lower than the grants available to Labour-controlled county councils. That disparity is even greater for London boroughs. Conservative-controlled London boroughs are, on average, £4 million worse off than Labour-controlled London boroughs. The Minister might be able to deal with that when he sums up.

The supporting people programme does not stand on its own as an isolated programme. Each of its component parts fits within a wider strategy to address the needs of specific groups. I said that the announcement of 20 February had an implication of £50 million for local government funding, but we discovered in that week or the following week that at the same time, on 1 April, £400 million is to be taken away from it as a consequence of the abolition of social housing grant. It was always expected that social housing grant would go, but everyone believed that it would go on 1 April 2004.

That is a significant cost to local authorities, which by and large had already set their council charges before that bolt from the blue arrived. However, it will have a particularly deleterious effect on a particularly vulnerable group of my constituents who certainly require support. The occupants of dwellings in mobile home parks are among our most vulnerable people. They suffer as a result of a form of tenure that has to be less eligible than any other. The law is stacked against them in terms of the power of the landlord. Perverse incentives are almost built into the law to maximise turnover by making, in the case of unscrupulous landlords, tenants' lives unbearable.

In my experience, a significant minority of landlords of mobile home parks have neither the social nor the managerial skills to make a success of them. We await

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the implementation by Ministers of the findings of the working group and a comprehensive reform of the law on mobile home parks.

I shall exemplify the fear of the owners in some mobile home parks. In Ringwood in my constituency, the district council was required to realise its assets and sell a mobile home park. The mobile home owners, determined not to be owned by some ghastly private landlord, having seen examples elsewhere and not wanting to be at such a disadvantage, and horrified at the prospect of being owned even by a social landlord who was one of the bidders, struggled to find a £1 million mortgage to buy the park themselves. The attendant stamp duty and other costs are loaded upon them but they do it and the deal is in train. Suddenly, however, the social housing grant is withdrawn, pulling the rug from under them. Can the Minister guarantee that the undertakings that have already been entered into under the terms of the grant, those that are in the pipeline, will be guaranteed to continue even if the contract cannot be exchanged by 1April?

Homelessness has risen by 15 per cent. from 1997 to the end of last year. The Prime Minister promised

In the New Forest, although there was a period about three years ago when there were no families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, there is now a considerable increase in the numbers. A gentleman, who I hope will benefit from the supporting people programme, came to my surgery recently complaining that he had been to see a house in Ringwood that suited his needs absolutely, as it had been converted for people with a disability and problems like his. He said, "Why can't there be a house like that for me? Why can't more properties like that be built to accommodate me?" He told me about the appalling circumstances in which he had to live because there was no such provision.

Part of the answer is that the district council is not allowed to use its funds to build such dwellings because it is required by the Whitehall-imposed policy to use its budget to renovate its existing housing stock rather than building new houses. I have raised the matter with Ministers in written questions, in oral questions and in debates on the Floor of the House in the hope that the Minister would address the issue on summing up. I have even raised the matter in Standing Committee, but it is like having a dialogue with the deaf. Perhaps this afternoon the Minister will break the mould and answer my question directly.

I fully understand the motive that underlies the policy; there are local authorities in this realm that have so neglected their housing stock over a number of years that some of it has become uninhabitable. Of course, those local authorities should be constrained by Government policy to do something about it. However, not all local authorities are in that position; there are beacon local authorities that do not have that problem. One size should not fit all; one policy should not be applied to all local authorities irrespective of the needs of their housing stock.

The tragedy is that New Forest district council will not be able to build properties for the vulnerable people I have described. Instead, it will have to rip out perfectly good kitchens from its existing properties and replace

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them with new ones in order to abide by the Government's policy directives. I believe that local councillors should take those decisions and be accountable for them; they should not be imposed by Whitehall.

Matthew Green : The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point, although perhaps it is a little off the subject of supporting people. Is he aware that the Conservative Government introduced the policy that he is talking about? It is a shame that the Labour Government have not altered it, but the reality is that it is a Conservative policy. Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that he regrets it?

Mr. Swayne : No, I am saying that it is horses for courses. This was once an enormous problem, but we have now dealt with it and moved on. The hon. Gentleman might recall that some time has passed since the last Conservative Government—though it might not be so long before we have another one. As for the hon. Gentleman's other point, I am confident that if I had strayed beyond the confines of the debate, you would have called me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Finally, I entirely support the objectives of the programme. It is time that we did something like this. An opportunity is to be had, but I caution hon. Members in the way that I caution my constituents that not all expectations can ever legitimately be met.

A lady came to see me recently to complain about the provision made for her son, who requires supported housing. She complained that he did not want to live in residential care, but on his own in the community. After all, the cost of providing him support to live on his own in the community would not be wholly dissimilar from the current cost of providing him with residential care. Consequent upon that exchange, I made one or two inquiries and discovered that the young man had moved out of residential care and had shared a home in the community with two others. However, because he did not want to live with the others and because of his limitations and disabilities—I attach no blame—he had assaulted both his co-residents and their carers. That is why he had had to be moved back into residential care.

When I followed the matter up with the local authority and inquired, in view of his choice to live on his own, what provision could be made to support him in the community, I was told that the constraint was not mainly financial—though it could be in certain circumstances. The reality was that providing care for the young man would require the full-time support of two people 24 hours a day, which has implications for the employment of rather more than two people. Ultimately, the state is limited in what it can do: it cannot satisfy every demand and every need. We can, however, go a long way and certainly do better than under the present system.

2.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty) : It has been a worthwhile and timely debate—perhaps rather déjà vu in view of yesterday's debate when again we heard two eloquent, comprehensive and well-informed contributions, and then the Conservative stood up.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has done the House and the wider community a service in initiating the debate. I fully appreciate his experience with home improvement agencies such as Care and Repair. He expressed understandable worries about the programme's complexity. I welcome his introductory comment that the scheme is overwhelmingly in the right direction and the underlying principles sound. I was slightly worried when my hon. Friend said that the Government had lots of guts for introducing the scheme: I rank that as similar to when Sir Humphrey says that a Minister is being brave and dire consequences follow.

It used to be said, in the days before some Ministers, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) got their heads round the issue, that only three people knew anything about how supporting people worked—it is rather like the Schleswig-Holstein question, one is dead, one is mad and the other is Bert Provan! I am happy to say that he still exists and is very much in charge of the programme.

I shall try to respond to my hon. Friends' questions and others, if relevant. The programme is a matter of real importance. I am not attempting to impugn Mr. Deputy Speaker's judgment as to whether certain subjects are in order—everything clearly has been, because he has not suggested otherwise—but I will not be responding to the comments that have been made about the partisan nature of the allocation because they are nonsense. Also, I will not respond to comments about the abolition of local authority social housing grant, which is not relevant to the debate, or about park homes, even though I am the Minister with responsibility for them.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) raised some serious issues, but with the best will in the world I cannot deal with them because I will have enough to do answering questions about the supporting people programme. I congratulate him, however, on at least seeking to hide the fact that he knows little about the programme, although he was not terribly subtle about it. However, that is by the by. If he wants to write to me subsequently with inquiries on those other issues, I will be more than happy to respond. That is particularly true of park homes, for which I have responsibility, as I said.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, the timing of the debate is fortuitous because the programme goes live on 1 April. However, all will not be resolved then despite the welcome that the principles underlying the programme have been given in the main by the professions and local government. Given the programme's complexities, the serious concerns about it and the issues that will arise as it beds in, the system that we introduce on 1 April may not be 100 per cent. the same by the time that we sort out the allocations in 2006. We are talking about an organic process—that is the nature of the beast.

Let me try, however, to answer some of my hon. Friend's specific inquiries. He asked whether there would be an attempt to claw back resources after the transitional period. He will know from the allocations that there has been a large increase in transitional

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housing benefit in recent months and it is right that we ensure that the money is spent on high-quality, value-for-money services that meet the needs of those who are, as he said, very vulnerable. We expect local authorities to study those issues with service receivers.

My hon. Friend also asked about sacrosanct local pots. Again, he will know from the allocations that there are major disparities between the amounts of supporting people grant available in different areas. We must consider how we deal with that to ensure that authorities can meet the needs of local people. As has been mentioned, we have consulted on an allocation formula and in the coming months we shall consider responses to the issues raised.

My hon. Friend also spoke about monitoring the process. We want to unpick much that is opaque and complex, which by definition is a complex exercise. We shall monitor all aspects of the provision of housing-related support, including the supporting people programme. Supporting people strategies must contain details of how commissioning bodies plan to spend grant money and we shall monitor the process carefully.

Mr. Drew : I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) about a possible problem with two-tier authorities. Can we ensure that housing benefit departments share their knowledge with the supporting people team? Concern has been expressed in some of the literature about the degree to which district authority departments will tell the team what information they have.

Mr. McNulty : That is a fair point. As my hon. Friend suggested towards the end of his contribution, there must be an almost root-and-branch cultural change in the way that all the assorted bodies share information among and within themselves so that they can work in the best interests of the most vulnerable people, on whom the programme will impact. There may need to be greater exhortation and guidance so that there can be discussion within and between local authority departments. The same is true of the various Government Departments and agencies in the field. I do not want the programme to flounder because people do not talk to each other about vulnerable people in their areas when they should be doing so. We are also aware that simplifying the complexity is a major task. Local authorities and providers have been working hard on preparations.

I was asked whether we are sure that everyone is ready for 1 April. We have trailed and monitored the process carefully and, in the main, most local authorities have climbed mountains and made enormous steps to be ready. There is an overwhelming desire that there should not be any mistakes or an absence of provision for those extremely vulnerable people. Without wishing to tempt fate, I would give local government a huge slap on the back for how advanced they have been. I may subsequently be giving local authorities a slap on the back of a different kind—things may be rather less amiable post-April and we will have to see how it goes, but people have generally taken the preparation very seriously.

We have issued guidance on monitoring and review that is designed to make the process as unbureaucratic as possible. We are piloting procedures in seven local

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authorities to find out how the review and monitoring on the ground works out. We will consider the outcome and review procedures if necessary. We all know what outcomes we want to achieve in service provision for the most vulnerable people in local authorities but, by its nature, unpicking complex schemes, myriad programmes and revenue streams and putting them into simplistic form for the most vulnerable people will take time. We will have to keep a close watch and monitor the process.

In one sense, my hon. Friend was not entirely right when he suggested that there is a £6 million gap in terms of home improvement agencies. HIAs are already exempted from the rule regarding charges for short-term services during the first year of supporting people and will retain the ability to charge fees until April 2004. The statutory guidance is being amended to make it clear that HIAs are not to be considered as short-term services when it comes to their ability to charge fees. We will ensure that that situation is confirmed as a long-term arrangement when we revisit the grant conditions after the first six months of the programme.

My hon. Friend appreciates that much of what goes on in single assessment is not directly in my area, but housing is an important aspect. As supporting people unfolds, we will explore how teams are communicating with one another to ensure as seamless an experience as possible for service users, as my hon. Friend pointed out.

I agree that supporting people has a vital role to play in enabling access to housing support and reducing bed blocking, delayed discharge or whatever we want to call it, and in co-ordinating and looking specifically at how local health services and primary care trusts in particular are engaged with the process. Again, it is not simply a cultural rethink and change for many of the agencies and professions involved; it is also about rethinking their engagement with the most vulnerable people and engaging with other agencies in a productive, fruitful and cross-agency fashion.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, supporting people will make the real cost of support more transparent, which was part of the aim. Anyone who receives housing benefit will not have to pay under supporting people. Councils can provide protection to new tenants who are not eligible for housing benefit during the interim period until the first service review.

Statutory guidance emphasises that local authorities should not put in place eligibility criteria for sheltered housing that would dilute its preventative role or does not allow a balance of people with different levels of needs in the same scheme. Local authorities need to know the cost of support to ensure that services are being delivered in the most sensible, cost-effective way.

My hon. friend's arguments about learning disabilities and mental health were well made. As he said in the early part of his contribution, supporting people is not simply about the approximately 530,000 household units for older people, mostly in sheltered services; it is also about a range of other users defined as vulnerable. For example, there will be provision for 45,000 household units for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems, which he mentioned, 4,000 household units to support the rehabilitation of ex-offenders, 3,000 household units for women fleeing

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domestic violence and 75,000 units for people who have been homeless or belong to other vulnerable client groups. It is more than simply a reconfiguration of what we do with sheltered housing. Supporting people will help vulnerable groups to maintain secure houses. It will remain the responsibility of social services to provide care, and local commissioning bodies will ensure that partnerships between supporting people and social services develop appropriate solutions. Service reviews will ensure that supporting people grants are spent on support services.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the income arrangements for people with mental health problems who are entitled to housing benefit are the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions. That was what I meant to say about four paragraphs ago. I reassure him that we will be monitoring the provision of services for all client groups as programmes get under way. We are keenly aware that we must capture developments in provision and support in each group and not just in a vague general sense. The vulnerable groups that I mentioned have specific needs and concerns. We will continue to work closely with the Department to ensure that supporting people links into other strategies to give a good service to vulnerable people.

I welcome my hon. Friend's endorsement of pipeline schemes and assure him that we welcome creativity and innovation in such schemes. We will shortly conduct an exercise to assess the amount of supported housing management grant pipeline required for 2003–04. Most pipeline schemes will not need full-year funding in the first year of operation and many will not be ready in 2004–05. If he wants to write to me on the matter, I will look into it for him in more detail.

As we approach 2003–04, authorities will be able to keep better estimates of the supported housing management grant required. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has made provisional allocation for pipeline schemes, and schemes with a confirmed capital commitment will be funded. Authorities have been advised on how to deal with specific schemes when there is a query about the provisional funding. Until those queries have been resolved, we cannot give more detailed funding figures.

The hon. Member for Ludlow asked about the allocation formula and whether 2006 is a realistic date. Throughout the process we heard many comments on the consultation on the formula. We will consider them carefully when deciding how to make progress. We must also consider timing, although we remain wedded to 2006. The intention is that the allocation formula will provide a guideline for allocation. However, the Government are intent on avoiding sudden, dramatic changes in allocations to areas during the transition period when supporting people is being introduced. That is because, as both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ludlow suggested, we must bear in mind the needs of these very vulnerable groups.

The hon. Member for Ludlow spoke about the commissioning bodies. It is for member organisations to decide the delegated authority that they give officers. He read from a letter that said that elected members may sit on the commissioning body if they want. The voting rules are one vote for the chief authority that administers the supporting people grant, one vote for

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each district council in the area, one vote for local probation services, and at least one vote for local primary care trusts, or more by agreement. All decisions must be unanimous; that is to ensure that all parties sign up to the arrangements. Exactly who attends the meetings is for the commissioning body to decide.

Despite the confusion in the letter, let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the arrangements are rooted in section 93, "Grants for welfare services", of the Local Government Act 2000. That is slightly different from the areas discussed in the letter that he quoted. They seem to be more about substantive points of committee membership and joint commissioning between two levels of authority that have more to do with the political and constitutional dimensions of local government, rather than being specific to the grant conditions of section 93. I am sure that that is the case, but if it is any different I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

I invite any hon. Member who feels that I have not dealt with a relevant matter to write to me and I shall try to provide appropriate answers, given that we have a lead-in time of less than four weeks. First and foremost, the supporting people initiative aims to make things as clear as possible for the most vulnerable people who need housing. It requires a degree of cultural change among all who have at heart the housing needs of such people—how to work together in their interests is one of the most important matters to be addressed by the programme.

I know from the tone of the debate that other hon. Members will agree that the programme offers local authorities and their partners an exciting new opportunity to develop local partnerships that effectively meet local needs. It is far better than the existing systems that we are unscrambling, using innovative new models of preventative services. We look forward to developing and sharing positive practices that enable vulnerable groups to achieve social inclusion in their local communities.

I leave the hon. Gentleman with one thought: please do not pack up your tent, fold it away and go home on 1 April, but keep in touch as things unfold and bed in. No doubt there will be teething problems, but we should work collectively, cross party, with no obtuse partisan dimensions to minimise any dislocation or disruption to the services we provide. The system will be vastly improved and vastly more transparent. Its success is in our collective interest as public representatives, and certainly in the interests of the vulnerable people whom we choose to serve.

3.16 pm

Sitting suspended

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