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[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair] — Wardens (Sheltered Housing)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:11 am on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health), Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:11 am, 20th October 2009

I congratulate Mr. Cox on how thoroughly and exhaustively he introduced this topic. I will explain briefly, widening the debate a little, why I am here.

I picked up a lot of additional casework recently relating to tenancy and leasehold issues, many of which centred on service charges and quite a few of which concerned the role of scheme managers. There were complaints and discussions about their availability, the change in service and the cost-in many cases, the increased cost-of the service. It seemed to affect a wide variety of accommodation in my constituency, with a wide variety of clients and providers, ranging from the more traditional model of low-cost sheltered housing to high-cost bespoke luxury developments.

Generally, the picture was fairly simple. It was generally agreed that less was being provided for more. That is annoying, as the hon. and learned Gentleman explained in his initial remarks, to anybody on a fixed budget trying to manage their finances who does not anticipate those finances growing to any extent. If one talks to residents, they often put the cause down to something relatively simple: they blame either the parsimony or the profiteering of the organisation in putting up the charge.

However, when one talks to the organisations themselves-the various housing associations and companies that provide sheltered housing-it gets a little more complex. They talk about tax changes and the changing treatment by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs of benefits in kind. Some-I must be careful with Bob Spink here-talk about the effect of the EU working time directive on the number of hours that wardens in sheltered housing can work. Many, of course, talk about the change in the Supporting People budget, the separation of housing and care costs and the end of local authority ring-fencing.

All those issues are, frankly, out of the range of ordinary tenants and leaseholders. They are simply confronted with the effects. A particularly acute case in my constituency occurred in a housing development run by Anchor housing, a reputable sheltered housing provider, and involved a tenant who was locked out. She happened to be locked out after the on-site warden had finished her hours. Other tenants visited the on-site warden on the tenant's behalf, trying to get her to open up the house, but the warden refused, saying that it was beyond her role at the moment. The tenants went one step further and asked for a key, which was not provided either. In the end, a locksmith had to come all the way from Bolton-that was how the Anchor scheme was supposed to run-to let in the old lady who had waited two hours in the cold to get into her accommodation.

That is not the nature of sheltered housing, which is why the incident attracted a degree of media attention in the national press. I suppose that the case could be seen as the extreme tip of quite a large iceberg. Generally speaking, the pattern is fairly clear. The warden service is changing, sometimes in good ways-wardens now are probably better trained now than they have been hitherto-but generally, there is a switch away from the beck and call model, which had its limitations and sometimes imposed on wardens in ways that were inappropriate, to the less popular remote model. That raises three key issues.

The first is a straightforward consumer protection issue. People choose and budget for a particular care package when they go into care housing, as the hon. and learned Gentleman explained clearly in his initial remarks. They pay for a warden service that is then reduced, or they pay for an on-site service that is then removed, seemingly with limited redress. The possibilities for redress must be explored. Warden service is not the only area in which that can happen. I do not want to make Anchor housing the villain of the piece, but the organisation also goes to residents and says, "You've got a bath now. We are replacing it with a shower whether you like it or not, unless you have a doctor's note." That does not strike me as being in the spirit of sheltered housing.

That brings me to the second issue. Sheltered housing providers need to think hard about their mission. They are identified with a particular product and a particular kind of client relationship. I know that some of the larger ones want to change the nature of that relationship, and are more attracted to the provision of peripatetic care packages than to the traditional role of providing sheltered housing in the understood sense. However, such providers risk becoming more business-like and losing some of their original sense of mission or soul. One thing weighing heavily on people who complain about what sheltered housing provides is the very high salaries paid by some of the bigger housing associations to their chief executives.

The third issue is public accountability. If providers have access to the public purse, how can they account for that better? Ironically, it is the bigger providers that sometimes find it easier to fill in all the forms and assessments for which they are asked. I have Abbeyfield homes in my constituency, as well as a number of smaller providers. They genuinely struggle to deal with the documentation loaded on them by the local authority, which goes as far as to ask individual clients, including 90-year-old ladies with dementia, what they think of procurement strategies. I have seen the documents; they are wholly inappropriate and make it difficult for smaller providers to prove they are doing a really good job, as is the case.

More bureaucracy is not the solution to any of those problems. The solution, which has been well mapped out in this debate, is to empower the vulnerable citizens who end up in sheltered housing. That might require considering arrangements for advocacy on their behalf, as some of them are not particularly capable of doing so themselves. As was also illustrated by the hon. and learned Gentleman in his opening remarks, we as policy makers must decide what should be provided, or we will simply end up with what we get, not having planned for it. That throws the ball back into the Minister's court, because the call for clear leadership is well supported.