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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:28 am on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 10:28 am, 20th October 2009

I agree. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point-I was actually going to make it myself-about the nature of consultation and the importance of good practice. I am always a little cynical when central Government lecture either local councils or housing associations on what qualifies as good-quality consultation because they are often just as poor at producing decent consultation, and they almost inevitably fall into the trap that national consultations bear no relationship to local needs, as my hon. Friend has just mentioned.

By highlighting the issues that the Brent Age Concern group raised with me last week I was making the point that consultation needs to be sensitive, because to get at the issues relating to personal contact, and the kind of personal contact people need, requires sensitively framed questions. The questions in consultations are often framed in such a way that people feel unable to give the answers that they want to give, and they feel unable to express their needs. In terms of the support that they would like, even in relation to one-on-one support from a particular support worker, local residents have said to me that day centres and group activities can often be as important as practical issues. All those matters are part of the mix that needs to go into any kind of funding to support people in sheltered accommodation.

I accept the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon, which other hon. Members also mentioned, that elderly people have often made decisions about their life on the basis that support and a live-in warden is provided-for example, they may have decided not to live with their family. That is why the type of consultation I have mentioned is absolutely vital. The Help the Aged report that the hon. and learned Gentleman cited in his opening remarks suggested that before a decision is made to remove a warden, it should be put to a vote of local residents. That seems to be an example of good practice, which I hope housing associations and councils will consider following. It is perhaps most important that any changes introduced are given time and are not brought in overnight. All too often there is a three-month consultation and a month later, the warden is removed. Someone who is vulnerable needs longer to adapt, even if the proposed changes might be better in the long run.

I strongly encourage the Local Government Association, and perhaps also the Department for Communities and Local Government, to produce a piece of research on good practice in consultations. In addition, I strongly encourage all housing associations and councils to get involved with their local organisations, whether Help the Aged, Age Concern or older people's forums, to ensure that any questions asked in a consultation are properly framed around local need.

The Help the Aged report also suggested that the Tenant Services Authority should have a role to play. I think that it has a role in holding local providers to account if they fail to live up to good standards of consultation. I hope that it will set up a clear independent complaints procedure for tenants who are unhappy with their support services, rather than just for those who are unhappy with their housing management.

On consultation, it is undoubtedly the case that because housing management and social care are provided by different packages, it can be confusing for elderly residents to work out exactly what is on offer. The Help the Aged report recommended that the Government should consider providing retirement housing as a coherent package, and I hope that the Minister will respond to that point in his closing remarks as I would be interested to know whether the DCLG has any plans to provide housing in a more coherent way.

Ultimately, the question is whether it was the right decision for the Government to end the ring-fencing of funding for the Supporting People initiative. Unfortunately, when people are unhappy with what is happening on the ground, it is easy for the immediate knee-jerk reaction to be to bring back ring-fencing for a particular funding scheme. However, that is not the answer. I am no more confident that central Government will provide the right kind of care for people in a particular area than I am that local government will. In fact, local government is more likely to be held to account by local residents when it gets things wrong-it is far more difficult for people in a residential or sheltered care scheme to hold the Minister to account if he decides that a particular care package is appropriate for a residential home than it is for people to bang down the doors of their local council.

We know that we face great financial difficulty over the next five or possibly even 10 years in relation to public spending, but it is important that ending ring-fencing does not become an excuse for phasing out funding or squeezing budgets, and that local councils do not end up getting the blame for what is, in essence, the removal of money by central Government.