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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Ian Austin Ian Austin Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 10:45 am, 20th October 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I know what a great interest you have taken in these matters, both as an MP since 1992, and prior to that as a local councillor.

I, too, congratulate Mr. Cox on securing the debate. He is well known for his expertise on this issue and for his commitment and dedication to campaigning for better services for older people, not only in his constituency but across the country.

I echo what several hon. Members have said about the tone of this debate. They have raised a series of important issues that I shall try to address. I hope that they understand how seriously the Government take the housing and support needs of all elderly and vulnerable people, whether they live in their own homes, with family or in supported housing such as sheltered or extra care schemes. I want to pay tribute to all those who provide care for older people, whether in sheltered schemes or in their own homes. I echo what hon. Members have said about wardens and the heroic work that they do, and I pay tribute to all those who provide floating support in the community, thereby enabling people to stay in their own homes, as many wish to do.

The Government's aim is to ensure that our vulnerable and older citizens get the best housing and support services that can be made available locally in the most effective way. In February 2008, my Department published "Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods: A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society", in which we set out how sheltered housing is often a positive choice for older people who want to remain independent, but who value that little bit of support or shelter and the sense of security and community that such a scheme can provide. We said in that document that

"extra care and care homes at their best can be vibrant community hubs, tackling exclusion and promoting active ageing, even if the accommodation itself is dated."

As the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon has pointed out, it is for local authorities to decide how best to design and commission such services. We all agree that local authorities are best placed to identify the services that are required to meet the needs of their local areas and to balance local priorities. We are not in the business of dictating to local authorities or service providers the detail of what local services they should provide and how to do so, or in micro-managing the delivery of those services. However, we are equally clear that in developing and commissioning local services, local authorities should take into account the views and experiences of local service providers, local people and especially of service users.

Consultation and needs assessment are critical, both to ensure that any changes in services are effectively managed and reflect the wishes of service users, and to enable local authorities to meet the needs of all service users. That was emphasised in the Supporting People strategy paper, "Independence and Opportunity", which the Department published in 2007. One of the strategy's most important features is the emphasis that it places on keeping service users at the heart of the delivery of housing support.

The importance of needs assessment and consultation with service users is also enshrined in the quality assessment framework for the Supporting People programme, which was introduced in 2003 and sets out the standards expected in the delivery of Supporting People services. One of its five core principles is client involvement and empowerment, which demonstrates the importance the Government place on that issue. It also identified methods of evidencing achievement and has been a successful practical tool for ensuring continuous improvement in services delivering housing and related support over the past five years. It was reviewed last year to bring it up to date and further emphasise the need for high-quality, individually focused services that aim to improve outcomes for service users. The majority of administering authorities continue to use the QAF, and there is evidence that other services across authorities, such as adult social care, are adopting it as a standard tool to measure the quality of services provided.

Hon. Members have set out cases in which residents of sheltered housing schemes across the country are concerned about changes to resident warden schemes, especially how those changes are being implemented. I want to spend some time addressing that important and complex matter. It is fair to say that changes in support services for sheltered housing and the replacement of resident wardens by alternative service models are not a new phenomenon. Those changes have been taking place for two decades, as was acknowledged in the campaign report by Help the Aged entitled "Nobody's listening", to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred.

There are several reasons for those changes. An independent review of floating support services conducted for the Department last year identified a range of factors. It found that there was less demand for sheltered housing, as people tend to move into sheltered housing later in life; that a large number of sheltered housing schemes are not up to modern standards, perhaps providing only bedsit accommodation; and that a significant number of sheltered housing residents do not require support services and are defined as the "active elderly". That is also reflected in the correspondence we have received from residents of sheltered housing, as they complain that they are sometimes required to pay for services that they do not want. As a result, some administering authorities are commissioning flexible, mobile support to sheltered housing tenants, based on an assessment of support needs, and they are extending that mobile support to older people in other types of accommodation. That is a key benefit of the Supporting People programme, which makes housing-related support services accessible to all vulnerable people, regardless of where they live or their type of tenure.

Other factors driving those changes include problems recruiting resident wardens, which have arisen in several areas, as sheltered housing is not immune to the wider demographic, technological and economic challenges and changes that society faces. We need to encourage innovative ways of caring for and supporting people to provide a more personalised service and make the most of emerging technology. For example, greater use of telecare can bring substantial benefits, including assisting people to remain in their own homes. It can reduce inappropriate admissions to hospitals, facilitate discharge from hospital more quickly and provide advance warning if someone's condition deteriorates.

The "Shaping the Future of Care Together" Green Paper, published earlier this year, sets out the Government ambition for a national care service in England. It recognises that Supporting People put in place structures that enabled partnerships of local authorities, health services and probation services to make decisions about improvements and local investment in housing for vulnerable people. It demonstrates the opportunities for increased innovation in the joint commissioning of those services. Supporting People contributes to the developing work on the national care service, as it shares the same aims of improving service user choice and control and keeping service users at the heart of the programme and its local implementation.

Hon. Members will be aware that my ministerial colleague, Lord McKenzie, is chairing a working group on sheltered housing, providing precisely the sort of leadership that has been called for in the debate, and I will take this opportunity to update hon. Members on that work. The group was established in April by Baroness Andrews, and brings together a range of interested organisations, including representatives of service commissioners, providers and residents, to consider how best to support good local decision making and practice. It is taking forward several projects on resident engagement and consultation and on service models, and that addresses the second and third questions asked by Mr. Goodman.

The National Housing Federation is leading work on good practice guidance in the implementation of any changes to current support services, including case studies on a variety of successful models for support services for older people, whether flexible community-based support, a scheme management service, the innovative use of technology or a hub-and-spoke model. That work will look at the costs and benefits of the various models-not just the financial costs, but the psychological costs to residents as well. By identifying value for money and overall benefits for older people, the case studies will present providers and commissioners with a sound evidence base for commissioning support services for older people.

Consultation is an absolutely vital part of any service, and that cannot be emphasised too strongly. I do not condone the examples of bad practice that the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon gave. As the report "Nobody's Listening" points out, if an organisation has really involved and consulted its service users, often change might not be such a contentious or frightening issue, and that is why consultation should happen before those decisions are made, rather than after.

Consultation should also be a proper two-way process, ensuring that the provider is able to portray the situation it faces and offering the opportunity to discuss why those changes are being considered and all the options available. It is for those reasons that consultation and engagement with residents is a critical issue for the ministerial working group, which is doing precisely the sort of work that Sarah Teather called for. The Centre for Housing Support is leading work on a good practice guide for providers and commissioners of services on how to engage and consult residents. The guide will improve providers' ability to consult meaningfully and engage people. It will help service users to understand what they can expect of consultation, and it will provide a benchmark so that they can make comparisons with what happens in their own organisations.

The ministerial working group is also looking at a key concern raised by Help the Aged: the lack of clarity over the complaints procedures for residents of sheltered housing. The Chartered Institute of Housing is leading work to produce a guide providing clear and concise information about the roles and responsibilities of the different regulatory agencies; when, how and by whom those services can be used; how the agencies relate to each other; and the type of information they require to act. The complaints guide will enable tenants and residents in sheltered housing and their families and carers to judge who to complain to and how to do so if they have exhausted the landlord's internal complaints processes. Those three guides will be published early in 2010.

This debate has raised several serious issues about the way in which residents in supported housing schemes are treated, as well as their concerns about the changes that they face. I thank the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon again for securing the debate, which has provided me with an opportunity to show how seriously the Government take those concerns and our determination to ensure that older people can live safely and independently in their own homes, wherever they may be. As I have explained, the key decisions on the provision of services such as warden support must be a matter for local authorities, but we have always made it clear that any changes to the way in which services are provided should be designed to meet the needs of residents and take account of their views through proper engagement and consultation.