Wardens (Sheltered Housing) Debate
20th October 2009
Geoffrey Cox leads a debate on changes being implemented in the provision of wardens in sheltered housing and calls for residents to be properly consulted before any 'floating warden' scheme is introduced.
Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner, and to have secured this debate on a subject of increasing importance throughout the country. I should say that I speak with a degree of personal interest because I have relatives in sheltered housing who have experienced the benefit of that form of care for a number of years.
It is an amazing fact, when one first reads it, that just over 7 per cent. of the retired population are in some form of sheltered or extra-care housing, and about 500,000 people are affected by the issues that we are to debate.
Let me say right at the outset what I am not here to do-perhaps I can address the Minister directly. I am not here to say that any particular local authority is uniquely bad or uniquely good. I am not here to argue that the growing orthodoxy of floating support is always wrong. I am not here to argue that floating support does not have significant benefits or that it ought not to be developed throughout the country. I am here to argue that something is going wrong with the process being followed in Supporting People administering authorities throughout the country, with the manner in which changes are being implemented and with the view that they are always right in all circumstances. Most particularly, there has plainly been a failure to make the elderly and the residents of sheltered housing feel that they have truly been consulted.
The Minister will have read the excellent report called "Nobody's listening-The impact of floating support on older people living in sheltered housing" from Help the Aged and the Housing and Support Partnership, and I make no bones about saying that I am particularly indebted to those organisations. The report reflects many of the concerns that I intend to air this morning, but they are also reflected in the worried letters that Members throughout the country are receiving-my constituency is no exception-about the changes to the delivery of sheltered housing.
It is important to reflect on what sheltered housing with resident wardens provides for those who experience it. First, most residents speak of the sense of security, companionship and collective community in which they reside. At Glebe Court in Northam in my constituency, the proposed changes will have distressing consequences and are causing residents enormous anxiety. Like other residents of sheltered housing, they speak of the warden as the life and soul of their little community.
Invariably, wardens go well beyond the call of duty. They organise social activities. They often preside over fish and chip suppers or sausage and mash. They arrange bingo and outings. They call on residents in the mornings. They are always around to convey a sense of warmth and to provide a listening ear when one or other of the residents experiences trouble or ill health.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. and learned Gentleman has brought an important matter to the House and he has started in a very sound manner. He was right to make avoiding generalisations a premise of his remarks, but he is equally right to generalise about one thing-that wardens are real heroes. They go the extra mile and they are extremely valuable. Will he therefore join me in deploring the fact that some councils have told wardens that they could be sacked or disciplined if they speak to anyone at all about changes to the warden system? Gagging wardens is not the way to run a reasonable democracy or local government.
Mr. Cox: I would agree with the hon. Gentleman on the general principle, although it is difficult to know about the individual circumstances.
Although this is sometimes difficult in the House, I want to avoid the tit-for-tat mudslinging that the debate could descend into. I want to invite hon. Members to embark on a real review and analysis of the changes taking place throughout the country. The Government seem not to have evaluated those changes or even always to have a coherent picture of what is happening, and we need to consider whether they should be getting a grip on the process and offering some clear leadership. As I said, I do not suggest that any particular local authority is uniquely bad or uniquely good, but the Government have a role in the process. They should offer leadership and set out clear guidelines and good practice. If changes are to be implemented, the Government should take the initiative in setting out how they should be implemented in general terms, leaving it to the Supporting People administering authorities to devise the specifics and take the decisions that best suit them.
The Help the Aged report predicts that although about 5 per cent. of provision is floating support, the figure will rise to nearer 40 per cent. in just two or three years. A fundamental, albeit silent and invisible, change is taking place across the country in the provision offered to tens of thousands of elderly people.
I was speaking of the value of wardens. In many cases, wardens are the life support for very frail, vulnerable and elderly people. Often, such people are newly widowed. Sometimes, they have no experience of carrying out small housing maintenance tasks or looking after the plumbing, the kitchen or the bathroom. A supportive environment with a single point of contact-the warden-on hand to help therefore provides intensely valuable care and support.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my Select Committee colleague for giving way. Like him, I regret the passing of resident wardens, although I do not believe that could have been the intention of the Supporting People changes. In my authority, there are 14 schemes and 333 places, 20 per cent. of which are vacant. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the problem is that some schemes can reach a tipping point, with vacant property accentuating and accelerating the feeling of vulnerability, such that the rest of the residents eventually leave? They will be decanted by the local authority, which will then flog the property off for other purposes, and that would be a tragedy. Like the hon. and learned Gentleman, I believe that floating wardens have a role to play, but they should not de facto be the only means of providing support? Does he agree?
Mr. Cox: Yes. I agree also that vacancies have driven change; the hon. Gentleman might suggest-I would not necessarily demur if he did-that they are often manipulated and engineered to produce a situation in which the home or the development is essentially changed in nature.
Today, however, I wish to place the spotlight firmly on the changes going forward under the aegis of the Supporting People programme. Having looked into the subject, it seems to me that it is happening at a much accelerated rate, and that it is happening as a result of a growing orthodoxy about how such care and support ought to be delivered.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for laying out the argument as he has. I am sure that we all have had people raising concerns with us about the changes, such as those recently raised with me about the Rosemont flats in Bramhope in my constituency. We have touched upon the question of costs. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is a glaring gap in the debate? Getting rid of wardens is used as an argument for lowering costs, yet we are not dealing with the cost of not having wardens to look after the vulnerable people that he so eloquently describes.
Mr. Cox: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt that the kind of environment that a warden can create will prevent the decline among elderly people that can often lead to knock-on and consequential costs of a much higher order.
However, I can see the other side of the argument, which has been expressed to me by the county council in my area. It is that floating support allows the release of resources to cover a wider range of people in a wider range of settings. I realise that floating support has such a benefit. One can reach people with the current accommodation-based support and tailor it to individual need. However, the argument runs that accommodation-based support does not do that, often delivering support to people who do not need it and sometimes do not even want it-although people can opt out. The release of resources enables people's needs to be met in their own homes and in other types of housing.
I fully accept the virtues of taking that approach. I fully understand that with floating support, the use of scare resources is vital-even more so at present. I fully agree that the practice being developed in many Supporting People administering authorities-SPAAs-can often deliver considerable benefits. However, I am concerned that one increasingly meets a kind of intransigence over the idea that floating support is always considered better. The consultation resulting from that sense of righteousness over the delivery of floating support-if it is held-does not attract the confidence of those who are consulted, and it is frequently not held at the appropriate time.
I shall tell the Minister of a startling statistic given in the Help the Aged report. It found that something like 67 per cent.-it was certainly two thirds-of SPAAs whose consultation processes were considered had consulted residents only after the critical decisions had been made. That simply cannot be right. If one cry is coming from coastal regions such as the one that I represent and from the urban centres represented by other Members in the Chamber today, it is that elderly people feel utterly disempowered by the process. They feel helpless, believing that their voice is not heard. They feel that they are not consulted, and that if they are it is nothing more than a sham.
If it is true, as the report tells us, that 66 or 67 per cent. of authorities have already taken their decisions and only then condescended to consult those most deeply affected, it is a disgrace. The Government have a responsibility; I urge the Minister to take hold of the matter and to say to local authorities, "This is the way you should consult. You should not take decisions before you talk to the residents that are affected, just because they are elderly and frail and preoccupied with the complexities of life." Such actions are disgraceful. They are exactly replicated in the experience of those at Glebe Court, at Northam in my constituency. There, I was confronted with residents who were distressed and anxious, some tearful, and who were in a state of uncertainty and suspense.
When implementing change of so fundamental a character to the welfare of elderly people, it cannot be right to catapult them into such a state of mind in the twilight of their years, when they are entitled to peace and security. The change is being implemented in a way that does no credit to our Government. I do not mean to make a party political point; I mean that it does no credit to the systems that we have put in place. We need clear leadership from the Government. At the very least, we need clear principles of good practice that local authorities and SPAAs are required, or at least encouraged by the Government, to follow.
Those principles of good practice should make it clear that the wishes and desires of elderly residents, and their expressions of preference, are important factors when considering a move to floating support. It is a clear symptom of the failure of consultation that elderly people do not feel that they are participating in the change for which their assent is being sought. They should be persuaded by the arguments for floating support.
Such symptoms suggest that we face yet another judicial review. I understand that yet more local authorities are being taken to the High Court to challenge the changes that they are bringing forward. It is a great pity that we should have to rely upon the judges, although I declare an interest in that the law is my profession. I suppose that I should rejoice in the opportunity for lawyers to make more money, but I do not.
David Taylor: You do.
Mr. Cox: I do not, because if it is done at the expense of the insecurity of mind of a single elderly person-the House will recall that even as I speak I am reflecting upon the faces of loved ones-if it is done at the expense of a single trace of anxiety in them, I deplore it. If they and others like them have to go to the High Court of England and Wales to seek consultation and democratic participation over things that affect their circumstances and their lives, I would deplore it. I hope that the House would deplore it. I hope the House will send the Minister the clearest expression of its wish that the Government should offer leadership.
Help the Aged, in "Nobody's listening", says of the Government's current approach:
"There has been a serious-and surprising-lack of leadership from the Department of Communities and local Government (CLG) and the Housing Corporation (HC), which are allowing retirement housing to wither away without proper debate or discussion. This is disgraceful, and a continued lack of engagement and leadership is likely to have further negative impact on existing and future residents."
Those are striking words. They are stark in their warning of the abdication of responsibility that the Government are choosing to adopt. I fully understand that the decisions are for the SPAAs and the local authorities, but that does not mean that the Government should not take a role in leading the right approach in implementing the changes. For when a warden is removed, it affects an elderly person in the most acute way. It removes the single most important thing to them-the symbol and substance of their peace of mind and security.
What I find particularly distressing and troubling is that there are cases in which the situation is even graver. I am talking about real cases. Elderly people may have taken big decisions in their lives based on the understanding that a warden would be present in the development into which they move. They have sold their houses and made family decisions. They have chosen not to live with their daughter who was going to create an annexe for them. They have chosen to sell their house and have made financial allocations to their children, yet they find, having been in the sheltered housing development for a number of years, that the warden upon whom they have placed their reliance is removed.
Some 67 per cent. of SPAAs acknowledged that elderly people in a warden-resident housing development regarded the warden as integral to their welfare but, perhaps significantly, a far lower proportion of those SPAAs agreed that wardens were in fact integral to their welfare. I ask the House to reflect for a moment on what that means. It is as if the SPAAs who filled in the questionnaires for Help the Aged said, "We accept that the overwhelming majority of elderly people regard wardens as integral to their welfare, but we don't accept it. We, the SPAAs, think we know better. We, the SPAAs, say that they are not really very integral and residents would not be lost without them." That permutation of answers to the Help the Aged researchers shows that an orthodoxy, or ideology, is developing about the way in which care should be delivered. My request to the Minister is that the Government should not only take hold of the process of change by delivering and setting down clear guidelines of good practice, but they should reject the idea-as I hope the Minister will say that he does-that the orthodoxy of floating support is, in all cases and circumstances, the only way in which extra-care housing should be delivered.
David Taylor: The Minister is a decent man of integrity and I guess we shall hear him say that the floating warden scheme, together with the emergency call system and other means, will provide-and does provide-an equivalent level of security for the people who live in sheltered schemes. But does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there must be recognition that a good proportion of the half million people who live in sheltered accommodation need the sense of community and security that can only be provided by someone on site? I know that it is accepted that 24/7 cover has always been an illusory ideal.
Mr. Cox: I accept that. It is the burden of my submission to the Chamber this morning. There are cases when nothing but a resident warden will do. If we are to make residents feel that they have been consulted, there are times when, if the majority of residents in a particular housing development vote or express the clear wish that they do not want their resident warden to go, it would be wrong to remove him or her. I do not accept the point-although the hon. Gentleman was well intentioned-that 24-hour care is an illusion.
David Taylor: On site.
Mr. Cox: I still do not accept the point. In the sheltered housing schemes that I have seen, the wardens may not be around all day, but they are known to be somewhere they can easily be reached. That sense of permanent presence conveys confidence and security to the frail and vulnerable.
I was speaking about a situation where individuals have made important decisions to their detriment, based on the understanding that 24-hour wardens would be present, and then they find that those wardens are removed. That cannot be right. In particular, it cannot be right when written or oral representations have been made to residents saying that the 24-hour warden will be there and that there is no risk of them being removed from that particular housing development. How can it be right then to break those representations? It cannot be right, and I apprehend that the legitimate expectations to which such situations have given rise are the basis of some of the cases before the High Court now.
We as a House of Commons should not leave it to the judges to sort out the problem. There is a developing picture of incoherence in the way in which such changes are being implemented throughout the country, and it is up to the Government, as the Help the Aged report says so plainly and eloquently, to take hold of the situation and to offer leadership. There should be no prescription for floating support. There should be no presumption that floating support always yields the better benefits. The system adopted must take account of residents' views, and when elderly people have made decisions based on the understanding that a resident warden will be present, it is not right for an authority to withdraw that warden contrary to the wishes of the majority of the residents in that development, and no authority ought to do so. Only if we offer that safeguard-only if we offer not just consultation but the knowledge that their wishes will be a critical factor in any decision that is taken-will we restore to tens of thousands of elderly people throughout the country the confidence that the Government and the House are listening, and that individual Members are willing to stand up and fight for them, as we are here to do this morning. They must have confidence that the system does not have to be a juggernaut that rides roughshod and tramples over the interests of individual elderly people. The Government must understand that elderly people are a critical and precious responsibility of this House. I urge them to get a grip on the situation as soon as possible and to offer moral and political leadership as a Government should.