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I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in Mr. Hughes. I was somewhat anxious when I thought about this because there are significant differences between social care provision north and south of the border. My local authority of Dumfries and Galloway was the first in Scotland to externalise all its homes. I want to comment on that and to describe some of the difficulties that it has created.
I was elected as a local councillor in 1986. Social work costs in my area were then the lowest per head in the whole of Scotland. Some people might say that that is because it was a well-off area but, on further reflection, it is because we were not spending enough on the family, child care or the elderly. I remember an inquiry into a residential home called Moorheads in Dumfries. One of my colleagues had a traumatic time listening to relatives talk about the regime--I can put it in no better terms--that operated in that home.
Standards in residential homes are important. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the way we treat our elderly people is a reflection of our society. Whether the elderly are frail or still active, the manner in which we treat them affects their day-to-day well-being. It is right to judge society in terms of the provision it makes for elderly people. Each and every one of us in the Chamber should take an interest because we all look forward to growing old gracefully and with dignity until we reach our final days.
The relationship between public and private sector residential homes has been strong in my constituency. Arguments arose from time to time, but everyone knew that they were trying to provide a service. In the early 1990s, we discovered that some local authority residential homes needed significant capital investment of about £5 million. That might seem a small amount, but it was significant in Dumfries and Galloway. The bottom line was that the council could not afford it, so it had to discover other ways--rebuild, for example--of improving the homes. At the end of the day, the answer amounted to externalisation, which some people call privatisation--selling off or giving away. Whatever phrase people use, the result is that Dumfries and Galloway no longer has any residential homes. They are now all in the hands of other organisations.
The decision to externalise was not taken lightly. Coopers and Lybrand was brought in to carry out a study and it later reported to the council. All that activity was going on in the background. The people who really matter can be placed in three categories--residents, residents' families and staff. All three work closely together, and no one of those categories should be placed above the others. People with an elderly relative in care want to be sure that, when they are at home during the evening, their relative is being properly looked after.
I distinctly remember visiting a residential home in my home town in early 1996 and being grabbed by staff to explain the council's proposals to families who were also visiting. In the end, the decision was that two companies would take over the 11 residential homes. A local company called Burnfoot nursing homes took over two homes near its base--one in Lockerbie and the other in my home town of Annan. As it was closest at hand, it was appropriate for the company to do that. Another firm, called Community Integrated Care, took over the other nine homes. The package that was pulled together by the local authority meant that, in effect, all the homes would be guaranteed payment for the beds, irrespective of whether they were occupied. Early in the financial year 1998-99, we discovered that the private sector was anxious about not getting referrals. Clearly, people were not being given the choice to which they were legally entitled and the council, through social services, was channelling people towards the homes that it had externalised. We discovered 12 months down the road that one of the homes would not receive its annual pay rise, despite the fact that the council had handed the money to the company. We later discovered that there were serious problems; anxious staff had been promised the world, but the new employer was not prepared to go ahead with the terms of the agreement.
Eventually, the company decided to buy out people's terms and conditions, and we found that people were seeing between 30 and 50 per cent. of their normal earnings being slashed. That is astounding. When we examine the standard of care, we can see that employees' hearts and souls must be in their work. I am not convinced that people's hearts and souls will be in those jobs for much longer.