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The importance of needs assessment and consultation with service users is also enshrined in the quality assessment framework for the “supporting people” programme, which sets out the standards expected in the delivery of “supporting people” services. It has become an essential part of the administering authorities’ means of ensuring that providers deliver services to an acceptable standard and in accordance with contractual expectations. The QAF identifies methods of evidencing achievement and has been a successful practical tool for ensuring continuous improvement in services for delivering housing-related support over the past five years. We have recently raised the bar of what is expected at all levels of the QAF. Its original purpose remains—to ensure that quality standards
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across the sector continue to be raised and that services evolve to meet the changing needs and aspirations of clients.

In February 2008, my Department published “Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods: A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society.” In that strategy we set out how sheltered housing is often a positive choice for older people who want to remain independent, but who value the little bit of support or shelter and the sense of security and community that such a scheme can provide, as my hon. Friend articulated. We stated in that document:

I am also aware that a number of residents in sheltered housing across the country, not only in Barnet, are concerned about changes to resident warden schemes. This is an important and complex matter, and, in view of its seriousness, my ministerial colleague, Baroness Andrews, chaired the first meeting of the sheltered housing working group in April. The meeting brought together a wide range of interested parties, including representatives of service commissioners, providers and residents, and considered how best to support good local decision making and practice. The group agreed to take forward two discrete strands of work focusing on resident engagement and consultation, and service models. It also agreed to report to Baroness Andrews on progress in a short time.

I hope that I have made clear to my hon. Friend the Government’s commitment to the matter. We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide priorities and the local design of services, but that appropriate consultation with local people should be at the heart of such design.

In that context, let me consider Barnet council. My hon. Friend set out with great eloquence and passion his concern about Barnet’s priorities and consultation on the matter. As he said, Barnet proposes to reduce the amount of funding for sheltered housing by £950,000 as part of a borough-wide strategy to find £12 million of savings in the authority in 2009-10.

Of course, it is right for local authorities to examine their activities and the manner in which they provide services to ascertain whether they can provide better value for money for the taxpayer. We endorse that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees. However, I have to say to my hon. Friend that the proposal and the related cuts amount to one twelfth of the financial savings required by the authority. That raises several questions, which I would like the local authority to answer. I question whether such a large proportion of cuts or efficiencies should focus on one specific part of the authority’s activities, especially one that provides a service for older and often vulnerable people.

I also question the timing. I am not one for conspiracy theories, but is it purely coincidental that the local authority wishes to make large cuts in money for supported people and warden services in sheltered accommodation
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in the first year that we state that moneys provided through “supporting people” are no longer ring-fenced? The intention behind removing the ring fencing was to allow local authorities to provide innovative solutions tailored to local needs and the wishes of the local population. We did not see the removal of the ring fence as a green light to cuts in services for the elderly and the vulnerable.

I question whether Barnet is taking into account the important principle that I mentioned earlier in respect of “invest to save”. I have read correspondence on the matter, especially from Unison, and it is clear that unions and others believe that the new scheme would cost more, following the cuts in service that Barnet advocates and the subsequent increase in involvement by other statutory agencies, such as social services and the primary care trust. Unison made the good point that residents who leave hospital would have to spend time in a nursing home because there would be no one on site to monitor them closely. That obviously puts major pressure on budgets and costs in the NHS and social services.

As I have said, it is not the Government’s policy or wish to intervene in the affairs and priorities of local government, which is best placed to decide what happens locally. However, I highlight to my hon. Friend my concern that, as part of the £12 million efficiencies programme, Barnet seems to focus on £950,000 of cuts in warden services and a £1.4 million direct cut in children’s services—to be fair , the local authority states that changes in services will mean a corresponding increase in resources of around £970,000 for children’s services. Nevertheless, there remains a cut of approximately £500,000 to children’s services. There seems to be a series of cuts focused on vulnerable people and younger people in the borough. In contrast, I have been told that the proposed cuts in central expenses in Barnet amount to £14,000. Council tax payers in Barnet need to consider whether those priorities are appropriate.

I have been told that Barnet has completed the consultation on the change to its sheltered housing and warden services, but has yet to take the final decision on the budget reductions and the changes to those services. I am also aware that there is considerable interest in the outcome of the consultation and in the future service delivery and funding arrangements that Barnet plans to put in place.

My hon. Friend has led the opposition to the proposals from the front, and I again pay tribute to him. I am told that the Barnet portfolio-holder with relevant responsibility will consider the findings of the consultation later this month. I will keep a close eye on the issue, as I am sure my hon. Friend will. I hope that the portfolio-holder in Barnet will answer some of questions that my hon. Friend and I have raised in the House today.

Question put and agreed to.

2.55 pm

House adjourned.

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