|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the subject of West Berkshire social services provision. It was as long ago as 19 October last year that the debate really became necessary. It was on that date that the Secretary of State for Health read out his now notorious statement at the national social services conference in Harrogate. In that statement, he named West Berkshire as one of the 14 worst-performing social services departments in the country. The statement led to an explosion of real anger among the councillors and managers of the local council, who had been so viciously and unfairly maligned.
The statement also made me and many of my constituents equally angry on the council's behalf. How dare the Secretary of State condemn those who are struggling so manfully against huge difficulties when, as I shall demonstrate, all the objective audit evidence was that the Government were the main cause of those difficulties? West Berkshire council was not informed that the Secretary of State would be making that statement. There was no opportunity for the council to put its case. One of our councillors who was sitting in the hall said that she felt as if she was being treated like a schoolgirl sitting in assembly as the exam results were announced.
The effect of the speech was horribly destructive. It stank of posturing politicians trying to deflect blame from their own inadequacies by slamming hard-working local councillors and council staff who are trying to do their job in the most appallingly difficult circumstances. It was a speech calculated to produce unhelpful headlines and to destroy local morale, while doing nothing to improve services.
I am not suggesting for one moment that the level of social service provision in West Berkshire is adequate. Indeed, everyone in the area knows how much more needs to be done. That fact is one of the greatest sources of frustration to those who struggle desperately to meet local needs within an impossibly tight budget. Nor am I making a case against rigorous inspection and monitoring to ensure that high standards are maintained. Indeed, the latest joint review between the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission praised West Berkshire for the council's responsiveness to the review process and its determination to improve performance.
What was most ridiculous of all about the Secretary of State's remarks was the way in which he completely ignored the findings of the joint review team. Only the day before the right hon. Gentleman made his speech, the inspectorate and the Audit Commission published their annual joint report in which they pointed out that while West Berkshire was not providing a high level of social care, it was at least among the top 8 per cent. of councils that had excellent prospects for improvement. When I read that, I thought that it perhaps meant simply that the council had started from such a low base of provision that
Just which councils does the Secretary of State think are going to take over, given that West Berkshire is already among the top 8 per cent. for effective political and managerial leadership and for taking effective action to overcome weaknesses? What the Secretary of State said was absurd, laughable, ridiculous and totally contradicted by the joint findings of the inspectorate and the Audit Commission.
So why did the Secretary of State get it so wrong? The first point to make is that the Secretary of State's verdict was based on a misinterpretation of some highly misleading statistics produced in the social services performance assessment framework indicators. Many of the areas in which West Berkshire is deemed to perform poorly are related to either costs or small numbers. West Berkshire is a very affluent area with high employment; which, by the way, means that we never get any special money for regeneration, home start or other such schemes. It also means that local care homes charge high prices and, if they do not get them, they sell up and make huge profits in the booming housing market. That means that the council has to pay over the odds if it wants to attract quality staff for itself.
Also, West Berkshire is a comparatively small authority. The numbers of clients involved in some of the specialised services are necessarily quite small. That means that minor changes in absolute figuresmaybe just one or two more children in a particular servicecan have a major impact on percentages.
Let me cite one absurdity. West Berkshire has been told to conduct an urgent investigation because the number of children removed from the child protection register and then subsequently reinstated is deemed to be too low. The assumption is that re-registrations are not taking place because social services are not monitoring the families concerned closely enough. An alternative explanation might be that social services is doing its job very well; that the council has reviewed its child protection procedures and is convinced that they are safe and appropriate. The only children who are being removed from the at-risk register are those who have been correctly judged to be no longer at risk and who should not be put back on the at-risk register. It is utterly ridiculous that the Secretary of State would have given the council a higher grading if it had put just one or two children back on the at-risk register, even if they had been judged not to be at risk.
Mr. Rendel: I am very grateful for that intervention, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Moreover, his presence in the Chamber, and the fact that I know that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) would have liked to be here amply demonstrates that this is not a party political matter. On the contrary, all three parties are agreed that the blame for the situation lies with the Government and not with the local council. One of the things that the Secretary of State said in the speech to which I have referred was that sometimes problems in social services arise because of party political infighting on the local council. The joint delegation to the Minister in November, which the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) attended, and today's debate demonstrate that party political infighting is not the cause of the problem in West Berkshire.
There are many areas in which West Berkshire council would be the first to admit that it is failing to provide for its residents the level of social care that it would wish. The crucial reason is the budget settlement that the council receives from the Government. The Secretary of State's speech ignored this crucial point. It is a grossly unfair funding formula which considerably underestimates the cost of delivering services to a widespread area with a scattered population such as West Berkshire.
According to the Department of Health press release that accompanied the Secretary of State's speech on 19 October, the right hon. Gentleman said that performance in social services was not primarily about money but about management and organisation. I have explained that objective evidence shows that he was wrong to imply that West Berkshire's problems arise from a lack of effective management and organisation.
West Berkshire benefits from good management but lacks adequate funding. I do not intend to spend much time on that subject as it would be going over the ground that we covered in our joint delegation in November. Let me repeat one or two crucial statistics, however. In the 200001 standard spending assessment, West Berkshire receives £77 per child for children's social services. That is almost £100 less than the average, and still £34 less
Other authorities may have a greater need to spend on social services, but the variation in Government support is dramatically out of line with actual spending needs. There is no doubt that social services in West Berkshire are grossly underfunded, in both absolute and relative terms.
Meanwhile, the council has made significant savings in the budget, totalling some £3.6 million over the past three years and a further £1.4 million planned for 200203. However, the current expected overspend this year is some £740,000. That figure demonstrates that further cuts are simply not achievable if the council is to fulfil even its statutory responsibilities.
Painful decisions have been necessary. The council has had to raise the threshold at which people become eligible for services and is able to purchase new packages of care for people only when resources have been freed up from existing clients. As a result, there is no ability to undertake preventive work with community care clients, particularly older people. That has had a dire knock-on effect on the local health service. What would happen if the Council spent at SSA, as the Government say it should? That would wipe £9.6 million from the social services budget, and the council would be unable to deliver even a basic level of service to people in need. It would not be possible to meet national standards for child protection. Further cuts in services for older people would be required, increasing bed blocking. Unsustainable cuts would have to be made to services for adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities.
In his notorious speech, the Secretary of State for Health suggested that one way in which councils could improve their social service provision would be to take a more corporate approach. In West Berkshire, the corporate board has time and again sought cross-departmental solutions. Only one local budget has not been cut to support social serviceseducation. West Berkshire spends at its full SSA on education. To avoid further criticism from the Secretary of State, are we to cut the education budget as well? I am not sure that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills would agree with that suggestion. After all, the Education Bill going through the House at present proposes to ring-fence the education budget so that councils will have to passport their full SSA allocation.
The council, local residents and I were furious at the grossly unfair naming and shaming of West Berkshire social services. If my speech does nothing else, I hope that it will demonstrate that that anger has hardly diminished in the three months since the speech. The Secretary of State's statement on 19 October 2001 was deeply damaging to local morale, particularly since it coincided with the launch of a national campaign to show a more positive profile of the work of social services in order to encourage recruitment.
It is time the Government stopped searching for cheap headlines while avoiding their responsibility to improve services. West Berkshire is not a rogue authority that throws money about and fails to deliver. Independent assessments have shown it to be a responsible council that makes difficult decisions within tight budget constraints and with what the joint review called
The staff deserve one more thingan apology for the Secretary of State's unnecessary and damaging criticism last October. I hope that the Minister will have the courage and humility to admit that the Secretary of State got it badly wrong and that he will give, on his right hon. Friend's behalf, the apology that West Berkshire deserves.