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Mr. Pike: Would not better regional policy to develop jobs, industries, commerce and so on in other parts of the country help to deal with problems in the south and also those in my constituency, which are the exact reverse? Sensible regional planning is important, as a lot of the jobs no longer need to be in London and the south.

Bob Spink: I do not see what is wrong with the planning that is currently undertaken by the county councils. I do not see why we need another body to do yet more planning. To me, that smacks of the dead hand of more and more bureaucracy being piled on to us by a Government who are basically control freaks.

Hon. Members would be very disappointed if I were to speak in this debate without finishing on my usual serious note by referring to the Cyprus problem. I ask the Minister for clarification following Lord Hannay's reported

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comments implying that there might be a suggestion of a solution based on two states in Cyprus. That would not be a fair settlement. It would not be sustainable in law, in international diplomacy or in justice. We must stick to our position—the position that I always thought the Government held, and that I trust they still hold—that Cyprus will gain accession to the European Union irrespective of the settlement. Turkey must not have the ability to frustrate the entry of Cyprus into the EU. We must also stick to a solution of a bi-zonal, bi-communal single state.

The talks between President Clerides and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, have not yet borne fruit, and I am sure that that brings great sadness to everyone in the House. We have not had the breakthrough that we hoped for, but I congratulate President Clerides on his flexibility and his positive approach to those talks, and I encourage him to go forward. We need flexibility to achieve a solution, but only a solution based on a single Cypriot state, and I hope that the Minister will clarify that matter for us when he winds up the debate.

10.51 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): I want to raise two points tonight. The first concerns the care of the elderly in Birmingham. My constituency regards itself as very different from Birmingham, but it comes under Birmingham for local government purposes. We are, therefore, affected by the way in which Birmingham social services department handles the care of the elderly. I want to draw to the House's attention the last early-day motion that appears on the Order Paper, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), the shadow Health Secretary, and a number of other hon. Members. It is early-day motion 1670, and it states:

I have quite deliberately not sought to raise this matter in the House over recent months, because I simply could not believe that it would not have been sorted out by the Government and Birmingham city council. It is astonishing that the situation has been allowed to reach this stage. A constituent of mine, Mr. Alan Pearce, who is the chairman of the Birmingham Care Consortium, has raised with me the treatment of his members, and it is no exaggeration to say that it is a thoroughgoing scandal.

More than 80 care homes for the elderly have closed in the last 18 months—as is set out in my hon. Friend's early-day motion—and the trend continues. There is no contingency plan in place to accommodate our elderly residents. Indeed, over recent days, three more independent care homes for the elderly have given notice to Birmingham social services that they, too, will have to close. It is no exaggeration to say that below-cost fee levels and the absence of contracts for funding are putting 1,600 elderly residents of independent care homes at risk.

There are 452 beds blocked in Birmingham hospitals, because Birmingham social services department claims that it does not have the funds to move elderly patients

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into care homes, because it has spent the money elsewhere. Eighty-six independent care homes refuse to renew service contracts for elderly care because the terms dictated by Birmingham social services involve below-cost fee levels, and it would be financial suicide for them to accept them. There will also be no referrals for consortium members who do not sign up to the unsustainable contracts that Birmingham city council has put forward.

It is possible that Government funding for Birmingham's elderly might be enough to cover the costs, but that money is being spent elsewhere by Birmingham social services, and not reaching our elderly folk. The problem is that, as the situation has got worse and worse for elderly people in my constituency and throughout the Birmingham area, the Government have said, "It's nothing to do with us. We have given the money to Birmingham." The council, however, says that it does not have the money and cannot meet the costs that it should be meeting.

The picture is, in fact, infinitely worse, given that Birmingham social services pays its own homes double the fees that it is willing to pay the independent sector. It pays its homes at least £522 per resident per week, as opposed to the £260 on which it expects other homes to survive. That represents a subsidy of nearly £13.5 million a year for its own homes. The situation is outrageous. Because of the way in which local government operates, we delegate this power to councils. We expect them to accept responsibility and ensure that elderly people are looked after in homes, rather than behaving in such an appalling way.

There is a shortfall in provision of elderly care beds in Birmingham anyway. It has been calculated that if an elderly person remains in hospital, the cost will be some £1,700 per patient per week. We have done our bit: Conservative members of Birmingham city council, both behind and on the scenes, have pleaded with the social services department to put the matter right. In a debate in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford eloquently made the case for Government action. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, went to Birmingham only last week and met owners of homes for the elderly to hear what they had to say.

It is vital for the matter to be resolved as quickly as possible. Birmingham's social services department is a shambles. Last week the department's head, Sandra Taylor, resigned. It is a rather unattractive feature of political life that this civil servant, rather than her political masters, should take responsibility; but in any event she has gone, and no doubt someone else will be appointed. Money is not reaching front-line services. If Ministers believe that they have given Birmingham adequate funds, I can only say that they are not getting through. Ministers must act now to resolve what is becoming a long-standing problem.

Mr. Burns: Does my hon. Friend recall that under the last Government money in the social services budget for personal social services was ring-fenced, so it could not be drained away to other services?

Mr. Mitchell: I do indeed. My hon. Friend will have noted that there is a rather better system in Scotland—a new system ensuring that money allocated specifically to the care of elderly people reaches those people.

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Most outrageous of all, surely, is the blatant discrimination practised by Birmingham's social services department against the independent sector. How can it justify admitting that it must pay £522 a week for its own homes, while expecting independent homes to get by on half that? It is a thoroughgoing scandal, and it must be addressed. I do not know whether responsibility lies with the Labour Government or with Labour-controlled Birmingham city council, but I do know that it lies with one of those two Labour entities. Elderly people in my constituency and throughout the Birmingham area are suffering, and it behoves the Government to remedy that rapidly.

My second point relates to the Pension Service, and the way in which elderly people can gain access to it. I have raised the issue on a point of order. It was subsequently raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) in business questions, and last Thursday it was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), shadow leader of the House, again in business questions. It has been raised no fewer than three times by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions.

The issue is this: how can an elderly person who is, or is about to be, a pensioner gain access to the Pension Service? Can that person ask for a home visit, or must he or she rely on the decision of the provider? In other words, will this be the elderly person's choice or that of the bureaucrats in the Pension Service?

That was raised in public evidence in the Select Committee. In the Committee, I said to a senior and respected official in the Department for Work and Pensions:

I was somewhat surprised that the Department said that it was

Were we being spun by the Minister, or was he correct and the brief wrong? The senior civil servant said:

Neither I nor the Select Committee was satisfied with the response.

On 4 July, the Minister received a letter from the Select Committee, in which we noted that apparently two completely different explanations were given to the Committee. The first was by the Minister for Pensions, who said:

One would have thought that the position could not have been clearer.

When we asked for an explanation and the Minister came to the Dispatch Box because, as I have tonight, I gave him notice that I was going to raise these points,

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he made many cogent, interesting and helpful points but did not answer the specific question. Nor did his helpful letter of 10 July. It pointed out that

and that

It pointed out a range of things but did not deal with the point that I, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the Chairman of the Select Committee have made.

In the letter, the Select Committee makes clear its concerns. In his responses, the Minister for Pensions did not address the Committee's chief concern, which was related solely to the provision of home visits by the Pension Service. Again, the Chairman of the Select Committee made it clear that the Minister said:

but the senior civil servant, Ms Alexis Cleveland, stated during her oral evidence on 12 June:

She reinforced that view in a supplementary memorandum where she said that the local service was not designed to be a visiting, on-demand service and that the department would expect such occasions to be rare.

It is clear to anyone who listens to the evidence that those two views cannot both be correct. Either, as the House was told by the Minister for Pensions, pensioners will be able to choose whether to receive a home visit or use the telephone; or as is clearly consistent with Government policy, the official was correct in saying that the department will choose which customers receive a home visit based on need. In the response to the Select Committee, nothing gainsays those remarks.

There is a most important point at issue. Parliament has not been treated with the candour that we have a right to expect. Hundreds, possibly hundreds of thousands, of pensioners have been misled. They have been told that the choice is theirs but it is not: the choice is the officials'. Nor is the model the Pension Service has developed capable of delivering the choice promised to pensioners by the Minister.

To some it may seem a small point. Some of my hon. Friends may have become cynical about what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box. They may say that all Governments behave like that. I do not believe that that is true. I ask the Minister to come to the House before we go into recess, to apologise to the House and to thousands of elderly and vulnerable pensioners. This is a point of substance and the Government need to address it before we adjourn.

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