It is a great pleasure to follow Norman Lamb, who, as we all know, has great knowledge in this area. I am pleased he acknowledged in response to my intervention that the Government the Liberal Democrats were part of got the balance wrong in local government funding. I am very conscious of that fact, having spent a lot of time talking about local government elections in the last week or so back in Chesterfield, where it is hard to find a Liberal Democrat who will own up to the Government their party was a part of. They seem to have disowned their record entirely.
My hon. Friend Mr Betts made the point that in this time of austerity the worst hit area of government has been local government. It has been utter cowardice for the Government to say, “There are going to be huge cuts, but we’re not going to decide where they’ll fall, because we’re going to pass on that decision to local authority leaders. It will be for them to decide whether to shut a library, close a park or stop investing in roads. We’re going to outsource the pain”. I think of the many people who first became councillors after the 2015 elections, or even the 2013 elections. They were so excited to be councillors, but at their very first council meeting they were faced with the decision of what to shut. That has been the reality for many local authorities.
It is absolutely right that the motion tabled by my hon. Friends should focus on that unfairness. I have referred previously to the fact that Chesterfield has had a 43.2% cut, whereas the Secretary of State’s local authority has had a cut of just 12%. Mr Dunne spoke up for that, saying the problem with the Labour Government was that they sent all the money to the poor areas. I am proud that a Labour Government made those decisions and recognised the role that local authorities can play in supporting the most deprived in our society.
As I said, I have been in Chesterfield talking about the local elections. I am proud of the record of the local authority in Chesterfield. It has recognised that in a time of austerity and unfair cuts from central Government it has had to make innovative choices to enable us to provide better services that cost less. It invested in a new leisure centre and found that the amount by which it had to subsidise it fell from £1.5 million—the figure in every year under the Liberal Democrats—to only £300,000 a year, as more people were using it because it had better facilities. Similarly, the council invested in our cultural facilities, meaning the theatre and concert venue saw a 60% reduction in the amount by which it had to be subsidised, since it was getting more punters through the door because it had better facilities.
We have fewer empty shop units than most other local authority areas of a similar sort. The council has done very innovative things, such as bringing a big wheel into the centre of Chesterfield, which massively increased the number of people visiting the town centre, and it has an innovative record on tackling homelessness. There was an excellent remembrance display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1914-18 conflict, featuring poppy cascades not just from the town hall but from a variety of retail units. The council has recognised that it is sometimes necessary for local authorities to invest in order to save money and to be innovative if people are to be proud of them, but at the same time it has managed to maintain the lowest level of council tax in Derbyshire.
We know that Labour councils cost you less. The average cost per household in Labour council areas is £351 less than the average in Tory areas. The authorities that have been most likely to go bust are Tory authorities in, for instance, Northamptonshire and Surrey. Not only does Labour run its councils better than the Tories, but its councils cost less and innovate more. I am very proud of the record that I will be going out to defend.
I want to say something about social care, because I know a great deal about it. I spent a very tough year of my career as care manager of a private provider of domiciliary care for Sheffield City Council. One aspect of social care that is missing from the whole debate is the fact that it is set up as an industry rather than a service. The vast majority of domestic care providers are private sector businesses, and the vast majority of care homes are run by the private sector. The No. 1 priority of the private sector is to make a profit, and we should not be surprised that if we involve private sector companies in care homes, they will try to make a profit out of them. That, ultimately, is what companies exist for.
Councils often involve the private sector because they are trying to save money, and they recognise that the terms and conditions on which local authority staff will work will be more generous than those in the private sector. That is one of the knock-on consequences of the overall spending pressure on councils. The relationship between councils and their providers is very important. Far too often, councils outsource responsibility for these services, signing up to contracts that anyone who studies them must know are unsustainable. They must have some responsibility for the decisions that they make.
As one who has worked with carers, I take my hat off to those who work in the care industry. I know that they are among the most dedicated and professional of people, often working in incredibly difficult circumstances for an absolute pittance. I know that whether they wear a uniform with a local authority badge on it or work for a private company, they have a real commitment to the people for whom they provide care. However, we are seeing an industry in crisis. More than 100 care homes have gone bust in the last two years or so, and dozens of domestic care providers are going bust as well. In 2018 Allied Healthcare, the company for which I used to work, was days away from bankruptcy. Every time a care home goes bust, the onus falls on the local authority again.
The Government need to understand that given the scale of cuts that we have seen over the last nine years, with a single year’s uplift and the ring-fencing of the small amount of £2.5 billion—it is not actually a small amount, but it is inadequate in comparison with the cuts of previous years—they cannot, as the Minister did earlier, wash their hands of the fact that the industry is in crisis and businesses are going bust. That means 15-minute appointments. It means dementia patients seeing a different carer every day, although consistency of care is so important. It means a decline in the service that they receive. It means families seeing that their relatives are deeply troubled by the inconsistency of the services that they are receiving. It means local authorities saying that they will not pay for travelling time, and that responsibility falling back on to the companies.
The courts have recently decided that those who provide sleepovers should be paid the national minimum wage. Many care companies did not previously pay it. I support that decision, but the corollary must be the Government’s recognition that while local authorities were previously tendering on the basis that those who slept on the job could be paid on a different basis, it has now been retrospectively decided that authorities must pay private providers. Money must now come from central Government to fund that, because businesses will continue to go bust and the services on which people rely will continue to be diminished.
All the cuts to care have consequences. When care services are not available, people turn up in A&E. Some 20% of the people in A&E should be in a hospital bed but cannot get admitted. At the same time, 20% of hospital beds are filled by people who cannot get out because there is no care package waiting for them. My hon. Friend Emma Hardy spoke about the impact of cuts to children’s social care falling on children with special needs and on schools. Things like the failure to diagnose autism have a knock-on impact right across the school and other areas. All these services are connected; we cannot look at social care and local government finances in isolation.
I met the managing director of One to One, a company in my constituency that provides excellent care services to many local authorities, who told me about the knock-on consequences and the impact that local authority funding cuts are having on its ability to get paid. The company is often owed tens of thousands of pounds by local authorities that are struggling to manage their administration.
The industry is in crisis and local government is in crisis. The Government have two choices: they either step up to the mark and convince us that they are serious about the social care funding crisis, or they continue in the way they are going, in which case everyone will realise that this is something that lands at their door.