Task force to oversee care in community

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The Independent Online
A TASK FORCE is to be set up by the Government to help local authorities avoid trouble with the introduction of sweeping changes to care in the community for the elderly and mentally handicapped.

The need for the task force, which is expected to be announced by Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State for Health, in a speech to health authorities next Friday, underlines the concern ministers have about the launch of the changes next April.

They will be as far-reaching in the care of the elderly and mentally handicapped as the Government's controversial changes to the NHS for other patients. The task force will seek to ease their introduction, but ministers insist it will not impose solutions. Mr Mawhinney may also seek to play down raised expectations that the changes will bring immediate improvements.

The new structure, which will give the lead to local authorities, has the backing of the opposition parties. From next April local authorities will combine the multi- million budgets of the NHS, social security and council social services, which pay for the care of the elderly and mentally handicapped, either in nursing homes or in their own homes.

The local authorities are seeking an extra pounds 900m minimum to pay for the additional burdens they face, and have warned that if they do not receive the money, they may have no choice but to take it from the council tax, which is also introduced next April.

John Major ordered a review of the policy, because he feared that it would increase the bills and make the council tax unpopular from its inception, like the poll tax. Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, put in a bid for pounds 500m to pounds 600m. That has broadly been agreed, but ministers are still arguing over the detail.

She has also succeeded in ensuring that the money will be spent on community care, although she had to accept a compromise in the face of objections by the Treasury and the Department of the Environment to 'ring- fencing' the money.

Under the new arrangements, councils will have a responsibility to ensure that the charge made by nursing homes is fully met, ending the under-funding which forced some families to pay part of the bill or see their elderly relatives removed.

However, with intense pressure from the Treasury to keep spending down, the local authorities will be expected to reduce the numbers going into nursing homes. A key role will be played in the assessment of the needs of the elderly or mentally handicapped.