Government make pledge to Southern Cross residents

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The Independent Online

No resident at a Southern Cross care home will find themselves homeless or without care following the cash-strapped operator's decision to shut down, the Government insisted today.

Care Services minister Paul Burstow was forced to come to the Commons to defend the coalition's management of the situation.

Southern Cross, which has 752 homes and 31,000 residents, announced yesterday it was to close after landlords refused to restructure rental agreements.

Landlords of 250 homes have agreed to take them back and run them themselves but negotiations are still continuing with the owners of the other 502.

Shadow health minister Emily Thornberry criticised the Government for providing "so little information" during a traumatic time for care home residents and staff.

In an urgent statement to MPs, Mr Burstow said: "I know there has been some concern about what yesterday's statement may mean and that residents and families, as well as staff, are anxious to know what will happen next.

"Let me repeat the assurance I have given to the House before - whatever the outcome, no one will find themselves homeless or without care. We will not stand by and let that happen.

"We will continue to work with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the Local Government Association, the Care Quality Commission and others to ensure that there is an effective response to any potential disruption to the continuity of care and that all residents are indeed protected."

Ms Thornberry said: "I'm interested to hear the minister say that it's part of a managed process because frankly, it doesn't look like that.

"It is a source of terrible uncertainty and great anxiety amongst residents and the family. We've had so little information."

She asked the Government to name the 250 homes set to be handed back to landlords so that residents would know who was in charge of their accommodation.

Southern Cross is the UK's largest care home operator but ran into a financial crisis brought on by a rising rent bill and lower fees as occupancy rates declined and local authorities reduced the number of patients they placed with the group.

For some weeks it has been locked in negotiations over a restructuring of property arrangements.

Shadow health secretary John Healey pointed out that today was the second time in a month that ministers had had to be "dragged" to the chamber on the matter.

At Commons health questions, he said: "I want to say to the Health Secretary (Andrew Lansley) directly that it is a disgrace how he and his ministers have ducked responsibility for reassuring more than 30,000 elderly and vulnerable residents whose homes may be at risk because of the financial crisis at Southern Cross."

Mr Burstow told him: "We do not help the welfare or interests of residents by an ongoing running commentary on these matters."

The minister later sought to assure MPs that Southern Cross's decision to shut down had no effect on the provision of care or the operation of care homes at this stage.

"Southern Cross remains in operation and will continue to operate all its care homes until any transfer to new operators takes place," Mr Burstow said.

The transfer to new operators would be a "managed process that ensures the continuity of services".

He said: "All parties involved in the negotiations have given a clear commitment that the continuity of care will be paramount in this process.

"Local authorities are already working to ensure that they can assist in the smooth transfer of arrangements of homes in their area."

And no transfer of care would take place without the new operator being approved and registered by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), he added.

"There has been speculation that companies with no experience in the care sector will take over the running of homes - that will not happen.

"Alternative operators will need to be reputable and experienced companies able to satisfy CQC that they are capable of delivering high quality care and meeting all regulatory standards."