Disability Benefits for the Elderly

Part of Opposition Day — [1st allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North 6:06 pm, 8th December 2009

Quite right, as my hon. Friend says.

Let us turn to the ground on which the Government might like the debate to take place. If there are to be no cash losers, why are we talking about abolishing two benefits-or not abolishing them; I may have to grant the Minister that, although I do not think that he is guaranteeing not to abolish them-and replacing them with the same? If there will be no cash losers, and some cash winners or cash neutrals, at the end of the process, why are we having much of this debate at all? That key question, too, is still on the table.

The Green Paper appears to contain a further argument that the aim is to reduce complexity for older people by merging funding streams. The paper states:

"Having two different funding streams means that older people have to apply separately", which can be off-putting. The Green Paper states that there is a case for integrating those streams

"to improve the effectiveness of state funding."

I would like the Minister to explain what kind of state funding can be more effective than meeting the rawest needs of people in a way that gives them power over their own solutions.

I would also like the Minister to acknowledge that, by his own argument for reducing complexity, there is so much more to do to help not only that group of people, but the millions in the UK who despair of ever getting what they deserve from the state. I am talking about the country we live in, where almost daily in the past 12 years, we have had application forms, means tests, quangos, queues and hoops added to every conceivable aspect of the public sector. It is no wonder that we are talking again about a group of people who are vulnerable to change and worried about more burdens being added as they simply try to get on with what they want to do.

To make a constructive point, it is essential to provide good information to people in any new care system. I shall mention one local example. Norwich has several day care centres provided by the local authority. I am sad that the Secretary of State is not here to hear this point, because judging by something he said earlier, I think he knows about it. He will also know that Norfolk county council is consulting on its options and he may know that I, as a local MP, will be standing up for my constituents on those options, rather than playing party politics.

The local authority is facing ever less funding in future, in a period of a staggering national deficit, and a move to personalised budgets. Under the pressure of at least two burdens from national Government, therefore, the council is seeking to focus its limited means on those who need its help the most. In particular, we are talking about dementia needs and so-called re-ablement requirements. Most people have no problem with that. The rub has come as the council has reviewed against its projected future requirements the usage of three day care centres that it runs. The elderly members of at least one of those facilities-the Silver Rooms-in my constituency are extremely anxious about their future. They are frail and some have physical and mental disabilities.

I raise that example not only because, if local facilities are to close, losing AA would in many cases be a double blow for those people, but because their plight illustrates particularly well why a national care service would do well to excel in the provision of good information. If the personalisation of care budgets moves from being a twinkle in a planner's eye to a fully workable, local scheme, my constituents will need to know where they can spend their money. That remains true in a world with or without AA and DLA, and with or without any of the options provided in a national care service. My constituents will want the comfort of knowing that, with their personal budget in hand, their day centre, or whatever they choose to spend their future benefits on, will still be open for business. If a national care service can provide such information and support, that is wonderful. However, if it cannot and only succeeds in removing cash benefits that might be seen as an effective forerunner to personal budgets and gobbling them up in a monster of a scheme that provides no improvement, we really are in trouble.

I emphasise the gravity of getting this right. It is clear that reform of social care is greatly needed. My right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell referred to the Wanless report. Others will be familiar with the statistics on exactly what we will be facing in 10, 20 or 40 years, when perhaps even I will be retiring. Perhaps more shocking, in a survey conducted by the Department of Health in July, I understand that more than half of those asked thought that the total cost of a residential care home for an elderly person would be £10,000 or less and that more than a quarter assumed that it would be free, so in addition to the demographic bomb going off, we are also battling a problem of public information. People need that information. Any proposals in the Green Paper will not be implemented until 2014, which should give us time to pin down the Secretary of State to some clear language. The Government must act now to alert people to that bomb.

Given that so many people rightly fear for the future of social care and are vulnerable to changes in the system, I want answers to some questions in addition to those put so ably by my hon. Friends. Why would the Government seek to remove an obvious area of stability, in the shape of AA and DLA, for vulnerable people? Why would we seek to abolish the only area of clarity for many people in the care system at present? Why would we do away with a cash benefit that goes where it is most needed? We need a clear definition of "no cash losers". Why would we seek to reduce people's independence and open the door to an unwieldy and ever larger bureaucracy? Finally, before they talk about the serpentine amendments that we have seen today-or afterwards, or indeed during that discussion-will the Government give the proposals in their Green Paper the gravity and maturity of decision that they deserve? Will they be able to emerge from all that and talk about social justice on the other side?

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