Schedule 5

Part of Health and Social Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:18 pm on 17th January 2008.

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Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Shadow Minister (Health) 4:18 pm, 17th January 2008

Before the sitting was suspended, I was referring to what the Under-Secretary said on 11 December 2007 at column 52 of the Official Report. It is odd that he should have said that he was “committed”, as that Westminster Hall debate took place after the publication of the Bill, whereas in a “File on 4” programme on care homes in September, Alan Urry reported that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary had

“agreed to look again at the need for an independent complaints body for families worried about the care of their loved ones, as he prepares to put in place a new regulatory regime due in 2009.”

Presumably, that regulatory regime is the Bill itself.

When interviewed by Mr. Urry, the Under-Secretary did not seek to disabuse him of that notion, instead saying that

“looking at whether there ought to be a right of appeal if you’re not satisfied with the way an individual provider has dealt with your complaint or some sort of independent element in the system of considering complaints...is something that we will have to consider going forward.”

The question remains: on the back of that commitment from the Under-Secretary, if the Government are serious about tackling the issue why is there nothing in the Bill? While in-house complaints avenues may work for large organisations such as hospitals, social care providers are often too small for an in-house complaints procedure to work. That was borne out by many of the examples that we have heard from hon. Members. We know from our constituency casework the strain that many regulatory regimes—and thus complaints handling by definition—put on smaller homes. None of us would wish to see a reduction in the capacity of such homes or of the service they provide in our constituencies.

Issues relating to complaints by self-funders in care homes are clearly under consideration, but there has not yet been any assessment of, or consultation on, the various options available. Furthermore, an effective complaints system at local and national level will feed into better regulation, both in the general guidelines and in the capacity to provide early warning of specific interventions. This is a well thought- through and constructive set of amendments and new clauses, which will give effect to something that, it is broadly accepted, must be looked at urgently. I am relying very much on the expectation that the explicit, on-the-record commitment of the Under-Secretary would lead to something appearing in the Bill. That is why I was anxious to have this debate on the complaints procedure.

May I ask the Minister what additional funding is the ombudsman likely to require and what have the  Treasury offered? What length of time does “short-term” refer to in the ombudsman’s evidence? What is the forecast increase in her work load? What are the differences between the Healthcare Commission’s investigation and the ombudsman’s investigation, which is limited to maladministration or service failure? How will the Healthcare Commission be wound up and how will it hand over its complaints function to the CQC? Will the Minister outline how the new complaints system will feed into an effective alerts system for the CQC, regarding both broad issues in the sector and problems with specific providers? What are the Government doing about two-tier complaints for social care funders?

Unless we persuade the Under-Secretary to accept the amendment there is a danger that he will renege on his promise to provide solutions in the Bill. Those pertinent arguments go to the heart of a number of issues that Members from across the House have raised, so I hope that the amendments and the new clauses will find favour with the Minister. They were tabled in a genuine attempt to improve the Bill.