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Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Is not one of the real problems that the boundaries for social services and the NHS are different? Consequently, it is in the interests of hospital doctors to keep people in possibly inappropriate care under the social services. The obverse is also true. As a result, people do not get the best form of care appropriate to their need.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. The difficulty that he describes certainly compounds the problem in Bedfordshire.

A genuinely joined-up approach is needed, rather than buck-passing between the various agencies over which picks up the bill. The consequence of the problem that I have described is that vulnerable children in Bedfordshire will be at risk unless a further £4 million can be found.

That is not a statement that Bedfordshire county council makes lightly. Its social services require an extra £10 million overall to enable them to give the necessary support next year, principally to children but also to people with learning disabilities, and to older people.

Over the past few years, the county council has propped up social services budgets from its own resources. As a result, it has no reserves left to augment social services spending. Already, people on low or fixed incomes are telling me of their alarm at the size of the council tax rises that they will face to enable the council to meet its statutory undertakings.

What is the solution? There is an urgent need—in Bedfordshire and nationally—for the Treasury to make a realistic assessment of funding requirements, based on actual and projected expenditure and not on outdated standard spending assessment formulas. The extra £223,500 a year for the next two years that was given to Bedfordshire in October is welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to tackle the scale of the problem.

Finance officers from Bedfordshire county council have told me that last week's provisional local government settlement for 2002-03 still leaves the council well short of the sums needed to protect the vulnerable next year. Services for children will receive only £0.5 million of the £4 million needed, and the overall shortfall on the projected social services budget for 2002–03 will be

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around £7 million. That is a huge sum for England's second-smallest county, with a population of only 380,000, to find.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has kindly given leave for this intervention. Does not he agree that the burden for Bedfordshire would be rather easier to bear if the health authority's budget was not so low? Doctors calculated that the budget was some £19 million short. There has been an injection of funds recently, but it goes nowhere near making up that shortfall. It would be much easier for social services and the NHS to combine if the budgets for Bedfordshire were more commensurate with need.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend makes a further valuable point. I referred earlier to the NHS and social services working together, and his point is valid in that respect.

Ring fencing must be allowed so that local authorities can direct money to areas of greatest need. Social services for children, for example, are excluded from benefiting from the £223,500 given to Bedfordshire last October. Greater partnership between the NHS and local social services is also needed. It is crazy, for example, that there is a difference between a "social services" bath and a "medical" bath and even crazier that the former is charged for and the latter is free.

Governments of all persuasions must stop legislating without passporting the necessary funds for implementation. We must do all that we can to raise the status of social workers to encourage more people to enter the profession. We hear a lot about those who fall short, but little of the dedicated work of the vast majority of social workers who daily assist the needy and the vulnerable. I am sure that Bedfordshire colleagues would want to join me in paying tribute to the work of Lyn Burns, Bedfordshire's strategic director of social services, and her dedicated team for all the excellent work that they do.

Bedfordshire social services has recognised the importance of working with user groups. It has agreed, for example, that the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Leighton Buzzard can help to train the department's social workers and other professionals, such as occupational therapists and care workers, in understanding the implications of that disease for clients and their families. That is an excellent and possibly unique initiative that will result in great benefit to multiple sclerosis sufferers and their families throughout Bedfordshire.

We need to allow social workers to be included in the key worker accommodation that is currently concentrated on nurses and teachers in the high-cost south-east. We should also have a massive national campaign to promote fostering to attract more foster parents. Bedfordshire, like many counties, could do with more of these wonderful people. It is a scandal that only 2,200 children were adopted nationally last year compared with 20,000 in 1970. Let all children be considered for adoption and place a legal duty on social services to provide this. The stability and security given to our young people by an adopted family will often give them the best start to life.

Given that the lion's share—some 64 per cent.—of the social services overspend is on children's services, we need to step back from the year-on-year budgetary

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implications and ask what is happening in our society that means that so many more of our children are in the care of social services. National and local government, schools and the media and voluntary and faith groups all have a significant role to play in supporting and upholding family life and promoting loving, responsible parenting.

Southern European nations, such as Italy, with their strong sense of family solidarity, which leads to much lower rates of homelessness than the UK experiences, have much to teach us. I also urge the Government to study the social policies of states in America, such as Oklahoma, where non-judgmental, practical guidance to promote marriage is beginning to turn the tide. The work of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood in Washington DC has also had success in reinvolving absent fathers with their partners and children. Its work goes way beyond that of our Child Support Agency to address the emotional and relational poverty, as well as the material poverty, facing families.

We must not think that there is a tide of family breakdown that we cannot turn. Family life can be strengthened with the necessary will.

12.18 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on raising the important matter of social services in Bedfordshire and being willing, along with me, to stay up late on two separate occasions to discuss this issue.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly keen to see high quality social care being provided for his constituents. That is what I want, too. I am pleased to have the opportunity to describe what the Government are doing to achieve that aim in Bedfordshire and throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that Bedfordshire social services is facing difficulties this year as a result of financial pressures. I understand that the council's financial problems have been primarily related to children's services and services for adults with learning difficulties. In both these sectors, the council has had to fund external placements that have proved expensive.

I am pleased to learn, however, that following staff changes and recruitment, the council is now developing a five-year children's strategy. This strategy, in which the voluntary sector—including NCH—is expected to play a key role, will aim to reduce the council's level of external spending and make a bigger shift to family support. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is an important area of work.

Bedfordshire has been trying to alleviate its financial problems in a number of ways. When the current director of social services took up her post about 12 months ago, she recognised that the council was heading for a significant overspend and took immediate action that has led to a clearer picture of the budget position. I understand that there has also been a review of financial systems to ensure clear accountability for budgets.

I am also pleased that decisions about children's and adults' placements are now dealt with by a county panel, and that joint work has been undertaken with the health authority to make the best use of joint purchasing services for children. I shall return to the important issue of partnership work—with the health service in particular.

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The hon. Gentleman has made much of the amount of additional funding that Bedfordshire county council estimates that it needs next year. The timing of this debate is such that we are able to make reference to the very latest information about the considerable investment that the Government are making in social services. That investment has been growing substantially in real terms under the Government.

Bedfordshire has benefited from that investment. This year, the council received an increase of more than 9 per cent. in its total personal social services resources, and will receive substantial extra funds for personal social services next year.

The resources that we are making available next year for social services were announced in the statement on the local government settlement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. We announced that Bedfordshire's personal social services standard spending assessment will increase by a further 6 per cent. The carers' grant will increase by a further 22 per cent. and the children's grant by a further 14 per cent. Increases of that size demonstrate the Government's commitment to social care and to making up previous underspend.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the position for older people. His figures on care place losses are wrong—like those of his colleagues. However, the Government are concerned about maintaining sufficient capacity in our care homes sector for older people, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes—indeed, I think that he did so—the £447,000 made available in early October to assist Bedfordshire county council in providing capacity and in ensuring that older people in the county have care where and when they need it. Bedfordshire will, of course, receive its share of the £200 million being made available in the next financial year for that purpose.

The hon. Gentleman made much of the need for further resources for personal social services. I agree with him: social services departments need more resources. That is why those resources have increased by 20.7 per cent. in real terms between 1996–97 and 2002–03—an average real-terms increase of 3.2 per cent. per annum. Although there is still more work to be done, I am proud that the Labour Government have achieved that. I ask the hon. Gentleman to compare those figures with the average annual real-terms growth of 0.1 per cent. per annum between 1992–93 and 1996–97 under the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman may believe that the extra investment that the Government are making available for social services is a drop in the ocean, but it is nevertheless money that his party failed to pledge to match at the June general election.

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