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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner. This has been an expert and calm debate that has been mercifully free of the party political rancour that sometimes disfigures these occasions. The reason for that lies in the contributions of all hon. Members to date, and in the fact that the tone was set from the start by my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Cox. I congratulate him on securing the debate, during which he reminded us that we all have sheltered housing schemes in our constituencies. I think that Dr. Pugh said that he had an Abbeyfield scheme; I have one in my constituency, too.
At the start of the debate, my hon. and learned Friend acutely and sensitively tried to focus the minds of hon. Members on the psychology of the older people who use sheltered housing. In some cases, the older people concerned will have perhaps recently lost a relative, be separated by a long distance from their children if they have any-their children may work elsewhere-and may not have easy access to their grandchildren. They may therefore suffer from the loneliness and depression to which Sarah Teather referred. Of course, the warden is important in such situations because, in many cases, they can take the place of a family member. Because wardens fulfil that function, they sometimes-perhaps often-work well above the literal demands made on the time for which they are paid, as Mr. Heath reminded us. It is quite right for hon. Members to highlight the role of wardens.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon said that he was not here to defend, per se, the application of any particular system. I have read both the Help the Aged report and the remarks of Imogen Parry of ERoSH-the Essential Role of Sheltered Housing, which is the national consortium of sheltered and retirement housing. It is worth noting an important point that she made in that organisation's assessment of what is taking place. She said:
"Many residents are pleased with changes that have been made to their support services, including a move away from resident warden services, particularly"- this is the key point-
"when they have been fully involved in the process."
If there is a single word that sums up this debate, it is "consultation". As the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Brent, East, has just reminded us, consultation should be carried out in the right way, sensitively and with face-to-face contact whenever possible. Imogen Parry has said that the Help the Aged report, "Nobody's Listening", which I have seen,
"noted a link between satisfied tenants and good communication and engagement by landlords or support providers...We promote better understanding of the reasons for the withdrawal of resident wardens, meaningful engagement with residents, better use of assistive technology...and a strategic approach to sheltered housing allocations."
Members have mentioned the legal challenge involving more than 40 authorities that is being carried out by the solicitor, Yvonne Hossack. My hon. and learned Friend indicated that a key issue relates to arrangements entered into by older people, perhaps including the older people to whom he directly referred, and the feeling that the arrangements were later altered arbitrarily and unfairly. As a distinguished lawyer, he knows that will be a matter for the courts, so I shall not go any further down that road. Instead, I shall ask the Minister a few questions.
As the Liberal Democrat spokesman indicated in her remarks on ring-fencing, with which we agree, it is important to strike the right balance between localism and what national Government should properly do. My hon. and learned Friend painted a picture of huge social change, with the move towards floating wardens, without the Government having any grip on the matter at the centre or providing adequate guidance. I have three quick questions for the Minister. First, are the Government making any central assessment of the great social change to which my hon. and learned Friend referred? Obviously, we do not want what Mr. Drew rightly called death by review, but we want to be sure that the Government have a grip on the issue, including a grip of costs.
Secondly-this question arises directly from the Help the Aged report-what could the Government do to tackle complaints? What guidance could they give local authorities? As the report has made clear, older people in sheltered accommodation, who have not necessarily been consulted about change, are vulnerable and there is a question about where they should go if they have a complaint. Should they go to the local government ombudsman or to the housing ombudsman? What is the Minister doing to ensure that the complaint process is more streamlined? What are the Government doing to ensure that the local government and housing ombudsmen in particular work together better on the issue, just as the local government and health ombudsmen are being encouraged to do by the Government?
Finally, I have a brief question about advocacy, which has been raised by the hon. Member for Southport and others. What plans do the Government have to make recommendations to local authorities regarding advocacy services, or to put such services in place themselves, to allow older people who may not have been properly consulted to make their case to the housing association or the local authority?
I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend again on having secured this important debate.