I congratulate my hon. Friend Margot James on securing this debate on an important national topic. It is important not merely because of the low level of building in this country, but because there is a serious issue about whether residents in sheltered accommodation are being cared for properly. The cases that have been described in this debate illustrate that issue.
The problem is perhaps not as acute in Herefordshire as in some other parts of the country, but it is serious and growing. We have a large elderly population that is increasing as a share of the population, and it includes an increasing number of frail people. Most of those in sheltered accommodation are cared for by Herefordshire Housing, which, after a difficult period a few years ago, has made great progress under its new leadership and reconstituted board. But all too often, sheltered accommodation is used for families who do not require it and to accommodate people with mental illness, who would be better accommodated in specialist dwellings designed for their needs.
The removal of the warden service from sheltered accommodation is a serious local issue, on which I have campaigned for three years. I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friends on that issue. The warden service is vital, not only for its early-warning service, but for the human touch that it provides for those in sheltered accommodation. There has been more than one case in which a resident has been discovered several days after they have passed away because of the lack of a regular on-site warden.
When the housing stock was transferred from the council to Herefordshire Housing, residents were given strong assurances that their rights, and specifically the warden service, would be protected. There is a general duty of care, under which the warden service is provided. Residents were therefore appalled to discover a couple of years ago that the warden service was being removed.
A very good local campaigning group was set up, called the sheltered housing tenants umbrella group. With my assistance, several members of SHTUG took Herefordshire Housing to court over the removal of the warden service. In particular, I mention Shirley Baldwin, who ran SHTUG at the time, Lil Jones and Nancy Evans, in whose name the group received legal aid to pursue the case. I am sorry to tell hon. Members that the case failed because of a technicality. A statute of limitations, which was very short at some six months, had elapsed and they had neglected to register their concern, in part because they were notified in a modest, non-public way. They had not realised that they had only six months to register their concern, and it was some time before the impact of the withdrawal of the service became clear. Although the lawsuit reached the stage of taking the advice of a silk in London, it did not go through. I am sorry to report that, because those people deserve a better deal than they are getting.
What can be done? Hon. Members have made many good suggestions in this debate and I associate myself with those. I wish to emphasise three aspects. First, there should be more vigorous enforcement of tenants' rights by statutory agencies. Tenants should not be notified in a letter that arrives among a lot of other correspondence that such rights are being ended without proper negotiation and consultation. Such rights should not be ended in any case because of the commitments that were made at the time of the stock transfer. Tenants deserve better than to have to obtain legal aid, which does not even exist in Herefordshire for such cases. The nearest place from which legal aid can be obtained, and where I found it, is Birmingham.
Secondly, there should be proper treatment of those with mental illness. I have residents who are being driven mad by the difficult behaviour of people who require proper treatment and care. Such people should not be left in sheltered accommodation, but they are because of the general crisis in housing.