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Fairness and Security in Old Age

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 10th September 2003.

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Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health 3:45 pm, 10th September 2003

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to the House's attention, because I bet that it is a story that is repeated all over the country wherever the Liberal Democrats are in a position of power.

Let me give an alternative view of what we should be offering to older people. Primarily, we should assume that older people know best what they want. We should bear it in mind that this is the generation that got us through a world war—in many cases, two world wars. We intend to respect their right to control and make choices about their own lives. We want them to have a spectrum of choices for their old age, ranging from being looked after in their own home to a variety of provision, including extra-care housing, residential care and nursing care. We want to enable them to make practical decisions.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of opening Alexandra house in Coventry—an extra-care facility that was created as a result of some foresighted thinking by the Anchor trust and Coventry social services. The council is Labour run, I might add. Every resident has their own flat—not a room, but a flat, with a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and its own front door. Although the front door opens not on to a street, but on to a corridor, the corridors are named after streets, so people live in, say, 31 Primrose way instead of a numbered room in a house. It is therefore a private home where the individual can close the door on the rest of the world whenever they want. There, I met an elderly lady in a wheelchair who is no longer able to see or feed herself—she is fed through perentaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, or PEG, feeding—and needs total and constant nursing care. Yet she lives in her home with her own space and privacy. She is able to do that because she can plug into the services that she needs when they are required.

We should like to extend the model of extra-care housing to give additional choice to older people. Some people could choose to rent extra-care housing and others could choose to transfer the equity from their homes to buy it. There would be a range of provision, and people could make the choice when they approached retirement age. They would know that, as their care needs progressed, they could plug into different, more intensive care packages. We want to add such provision to the spectrum of choice. We are realising that by devising an £85 million competition to encourage people to propose ideas for creating such extra-care facilities. We shall not assume that people want to be in a care home. Our planning will be predicated on giving people genuine choice.

Before considering care home closures, I want to deal with some aspects of pension credit. I shall not do that in depth, because my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions did so earlier, and I do not pretend to be an expert on it. However, Hywel Williams raised some local issues involving the centralisation of the Pension Service in Wales. He made some constructive points that deserve a constructive answer, and I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions reads his comments and takes them on board. I shall deal with two points.

First, the hon. Gentleman said that 60 per cent. of pensioners in Wales rely on the minimum income guarantee. That means that 60 per cent. of pensioners in Wales benefit from our targeting resources on the poorer pensioners—those who need them most—rather than spreading them too thinly.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that there are two language lines for people in Wales to ring when they claim minimum income guarantee and pension credit. Of course, there should be two language lines and their existence shows the detail into which the Department for Work and Pensions and the Pension Service go to ensure that everybody can easily claim the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit. The fact that people can do that by telephone and that Pension Service officials will go to people's homes to help them to apply for the benefits shows the lengths to which we go to boost the number of claimants and ensure that everyone can claim. The Department and the Pension Service should be congratulated on their work, and not encounter the sort of blocking that Liberal Democrats are attempting.

Events in Brent, East have constituted another sub-theme of the debate. Liberal Democrats in one place claim that they would scrap the pension credit, but in Brent, East they claim that it is wonderful. For the first time, I witnessed a political party changing its policy three times in one debate. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam began with an explicit statement that the pension credit should be scrapped and that we should give £19 extra a week to people over 75. [Interruption.] That is what he said—I am not going barmy and I did not imagine it. Anybody under 75 would not benefit from that Liberal Democrat policy. When he claimed that he would get rid of means-testing, he did not mean it because £19 is not as much as the total minimum income guarantee, which is closer to £26. Anybody who did not benefit from the £19 and remained worse off would have to be means-tested to reach the minimum income guarantee, and anyone under 75 would still have to be means-tested to get the minimum income guarantee.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam sits here trying to give the impression to the pensioners of this country and the voters in Brent, East that if his party were in power, it would scrap means-testing and give everyone an extra £19 a week, but he is going to do neither of those things. By the end of the debate, the hon. Member for Northavon had said, "Well, we did believe in scrapping the pension credit when it first came out, but we've changed our mind now. We're going to keep it." Yet, by the time he had reached the end of his speech, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions as to whether he would scrap it he said, "No, but if we were in power, we would shift to some other means of providing pensioner benefits." He had changed his policy within 15 seconds of making it, which has to be a record, even for the Liberal Democrats.

Let us move away from pensions, although that will not involve moving any closer to an issue that the Liberal Democrats have done any serious thinking about. Let us consider the so-called crisis in care homes that they keep talking about. I would be the first to admit that, in some parts of the country, there are some difficulties in respect of capacity in care homes. How are we dealing with that? We have given local authorities substantial extra funding, along with the responsibility to manage care home capacity in their own areas. We have given resources above the level of inflation since 1997. We have given local authorities nearly a quarter more funding for personal social services, and they can use that money in any way they want—to balance provision between domiciliary care and care homes, or to stabilise the care home market, for example. They can do whatever they want with it, because we believe in local government autonomy. That is something that the Liberal Democrats are always telling us that they believe in, yet as soon as local authorities make a decision that they do not like, they want us to intervene from Whitehall.