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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:18 am, 20th October 2009

I, too, congratulate Mr. Cox, as well as Mr. Drew and my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh, on not only the content of this debate but the tone in which it has been carried out. It is absolutely right that we seek a consensus on this issue, which affects our constituents, rather than indulging in party political debate. It is not a party political issue.

I am particularly indebted to the hon. and learned Gentleman for securing this debate. Had he not done so, I would have had to, in order to meet my commitments on the matter to the residents of Elizabeth court in Martock, whom I met only last week. I said, "Of course I will try to secure a debate early in the next parliamentary Session." The hon. and learned Gentleman has done me a great service.

The residents of Elizabeth court have a particular concern. They are losing their part-time warden, having lost their full-time warden some time ago. That is not a local government housing scheme, but a housing association scheme that did not derive from council housing. That widens the context of the debate slightly from the traditional question of what a council provides, because the issue concerns all providers.

While talking about my constituency, I ought to mention a case that was well publicised in the national newspapers over the summer. A gentleman in his 80s fell in his home in Holcombe and broke his hip. He was left for some time before being discovered by a neighbour. There was no easy recourse to deal with his problems. That illustrates the exposure of many elderly people. They are anxious, correctly, that if there is an emergency they will no longer have the support they used to have. Four years ago there was an on-site warden who would have dealt with that gentleman's issues.

In 2003, there was a court case in which 20 wardens from Harrow borough council claimed that their conditions fell foul of the European working time directive because they were contracted to work 37 hours per week, whereas they were working for more than 100 hours per week. The court found in their favour and awarded substantial compensation. As a result, concern spread quickly among housing managers that they could no longer have on-site sheltered accommodation wardens. That is still used as the reason for many of the changes we are discussing.

The changes have now gone well beyond that, because it is often not on-site wardens but part-time non-residential wardens who are being withdrawn in favour of the model described in this debate. Far from the amount of sheltered accommodation being increased, as the hon. Member for Stroud urged, 50,000 sheltered housing units have been lost over the last five years. It is estimated that there are 470,000 units in the country, compared with 520,000 units five years ago. When I say those units have been lost, I do not mean they have been bulldozed, but that the support for residents that provided them with sheltered accommodation is no longer provided. As the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon said, it is estimated that within three years, 40 per cent. of schemes will have floating support.

Like other hon. Members, I am not critical of local authorities or housing associations that are putting the greatest possible effort into providing support for their residents. There are some for whom floating support is the right answer; I simply argue that it is not right for all residents. For many residents, it creates a high level of anxiety. Like the rest of the population, residents of sheltered housing schemes as a demographic are becoming older and frailer. They are now more likely to lack comparatively young, good neighbours who can come to their aid and support them in difficult times. That is why wardens are valuable. As is so often the case with people who work in social support systems, wardens have sometimes been exploited because they provide added value. They often go beyond the strict terms of their remit. However, that provides not only support, but vital reassurance for residents.

Moving wardens away appears to provide a cost saving for the housing association. However, as Bob Spink said, the costs are often simply transferred elsewhere in the system, making the cost saving only an illusion. We have adduced similar arguments in debates on the value of community beat officers. Such officers were never cost-effective in terms of fighting crime, but they are desirable because they provide intangibles such as reassurance for the community. In the same way, rural post offices have high unit costs and cannot be justified by looking just at the bottom line on the balance sheet. However, they provide enormous value to a community that goes well beyond the strict terms of the business.

I have mentioned that we are discussing not just local authority housing but housing associations. The current judicial review is against the withdrawal of warden facilities in non-municipal housing associations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport suggested, it is reasonable for residents to expect warden support after they decide to enter such housing. It is a contractual issue because when the housing is bought, the advertisements say that it is sheltered housing with warden support. I have seen such advertisements. The contract they sign is therefore for sheltered housing with warden support. Residents are now being told that the support is being withdrawn unilaterally, without a consequent amendment of contract. We must wait and see what the judicial review says, but I think there is a reasonable expectation.

We have very few minutes at our disposal, so I will close to allow others to speak. I say simply that there must be alternative ways of delivering a better service for those who wish to see a physical presence. I will not prescribe the alternatives, but one that comes readily to mind was instituted many years ago when I was the leader of Somerset county council. Then, there was a movement from institutional care to so-called care in the community. We developed core and cluster systems that provided a resource to a group of people living in houses. That is not quite the same as sheltered housing, but perhaps such a system could be provided by long-term care establishments under contract, to give at least part-time warden support for sheltered housing schemes that goes beyond the simple emergency response and call-up systems being proposed.

We need to look at the consultation process and the kind of executive decisions that are too often being taken for the good of the residents, but without their agreement.