I am delighted to take part in this debate. I congratulate Mr. Cox on choosing this topic. I know his part of the world rather well, but I will not talk about specific areas. However, I should like to put it on record that I was in one of my sheltered units in Sherborne under the tutelage of a scheme manager. I have to say at this point that it has taken me nearly 10 years to use that title rather than "warden". If I get it wrong, I apologise because I am always being told that wardens are now called scheme managers. The unit to which I refer is under the scheme managership of Marilyn Wood. It is an excellent unit that has become a very sheltered scheme. I want to say a few things about that, given the way in which the arrangements have moved on from the days of the traditional sheltered unit.
Stroud is very good in this field, as we have 29 units, which are enormously varied. In many respects, however, my message to my hon. Friend the Minister about the current system is that if it ain't broke, why are we trying to fix it? However, we must also recognise that sheltered accommodation has to move on, and one of the ways in which it should do so is in building more units, which are needed. Recently, the only units that have been provided are either in what I call the not-for-profit sector or, more particularly, in the private sector, whereas to me sheltered accommodation is a function of local authorities and one that they fulfil very well.
I pay due regard to Pauline Simpson, who chairs the United Sheltered Accommodation Panel in Stroud. Somewhat contrary to what the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon said, it is interesting that in Stroud, people have organised terribly effectively, to the extent that they are pushing the boundaries of participation and consultation. It is certainly not uncommon for 28, even on occasion 29, of the units in Stroud to be represented at that panel. It is a fairly fierce body for anybody going before it, because the people on it do not hold back in saying what they think and they are very clear in their thinking.
The starting point, or backdrop, to this discussion is that Stroud, perhaps like the rest of the country, has been reviewing the role of sheltered accommodation for some considerable time. The current review started in March 2007, which is more than two years ago, and that review was itself conducted on the back of earlier reviews. I think that we need to reach a conclusion about what we want to do. Much of the review process is about establishing where Supporting People fits in the context of sheltered accommodation. I must say absolutely clearly that Supporting People was a good concept. I say so, because Gloucestershire did peculiarly well out of the early budgetary arrangements for Supporting People. The difficulty was that it was not at all clear how the money would be divvied out, and as the money has been reduced, the allocations have definitely become much more tense and controversial, to the extent that Gloucestershire has had to pay back money, relatively speaking, and it has certainly been capped, which is very unhelpful. This debate is highly pertinent, because in April 2009, we lost the ring fence, which has brought this issue to a head and led a lot of tenants to question how sheltered accommodation will continue to function in future.
I take it as read that sheltered accommodation is appropriate for those who choose it. I deliberately use those words, because sheltered accommodation is not suitable for everyone. However, I become very annoyed when people see it as a historic form of institutional provision, because that is not what it is. It is very good at what it does, and the key to that success is not the buildings but the people involved. The most important person involved is the warden or scheme manager, and if a unit gets a good one, it functions very well.
One of the things that was drawn to my attention by Pauline Simpson of USAP was a report on this subject. The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon talked about a report by Help the Aged, but the report to which Pauline Simpson referred me was by Pascalle van Bilsen and others. It looks at sheltered housing, and compares it with independent housing, and the discussion section begins:
"The most prominent finding of this study is that two comparable groups of frail elderly people in two different housing conditions differed in perceived quality of life, autonomy and feelings of insecurity; respondents living in sheltered housing evaluated their quality of life more favourably and experienced greater autonomy and fewer feelings of insecurity than respondents living independently in the community."
That sums up the situation. Why do people want to go into sheltered housing? It is not to lose their independence but to protect it, because they get the best of both worlds; they have someone just keeping an eye on them, but they can keep their own room and their own way of living, despite the fact that they are living communally, which I think has an enormous amount to be said for it in older life.
The problem is that much of the accommodation has aged and we must recognise that it is necessary to invest in sheltered units, just as it is necessary to invest in every other unit of accommodation. If Stroud is taken as an exemplar, which I think it can be, many sheltered units are bedsits, which in this day and age are not popular, because of the lack of space. Moreover, there are always issues related to pets and the way in which people think that their home is really a home, rather than something else.
There is also the issue of the age at which people can go into sheltered accommodation-I am always wrestling with that issue. Notionally, people can go in from the age of 60 onwards and I think that that is quite important. For some people, their situation is such that they need to enter into this type of sheltered living at a relatively young age, normally because they have a disability or because they are vulnerable in some way or other. However, that causes some tensions, because there may be a huge age range of people in sheltered accommodation.
We must also consider the suitability of some of the accommodation for people as they become frailer. We need to talk about wet floors and how people can be bathed. All of the facilities, for bathing and for other activities, need to be made fit for purpose, if someone's quality of life is to be kept at such a standard that they want to live in sheltered accommodation rather than seeing it as a trap. There are also issues related to things such as mobility scooters, which in many respects are a pain, but they are absolutely vital for the people who use them. In the area where I live-Sherborne is in Stonehouse, where I reside-mobility scooters are very attractive, as it is a flat part of Stroud. However, if people are not careful, there are mobility scooter motorway wars, with scooters buzzing around. That is great, but each scooter needs to be powered up and kept in an appropriate place, which is not always easy in some of our older buildings.
Turning to the subject of resident scheme managers, there is always tension about availability. It is important to lay down standards that are fair to the scheme managers, but of course back-up is required. My father, who recently passed away, relied on an alarm system in the community, and that system is crucial. What happens when someone falls over? Who picks them up? There are some real tension points in that situation. Is it the ambulance service that picks them up? Is it a requirement that the scheme manager should do so, or is there some other way to deal with that situation? It is a perennial debate.
I am aware that other Members want to speak in the debate, so I will bring my remarks to a fairly speedy conclusion. We have spent long enough reviewing sheltered accommodation, which has a part to play. I certainly welcome some of the material from ERoSH-a consortium on the essential role of sheltered housing-which examines the role of sheltered accommodation in the round. ERoSH is not against floating support per se. There is a gentleman in my constituency called Ron Birch who provides floating support and he himself is quite critical about some of the ways in which we are going, because he believes that floating support is seen as a cheaper option and as a way in which people can try to pretend that they are providing quality support when in reality nobody is providing such support.