Vouchers to force sale of homes for the elderly

Scheme for `privatising grannies' will turn councils into care purchasers, Glenda Cooper reports
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The Independent Online
Vouchers could be used as part of the Government's plans for forcing local authorities to sell their old people's homes in the most radical shake-up of social services for 25 years, Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday.

Attacked as "privatising grannies" by Labour MPs, and "dogma gone mad" by carers' groups, yesterday's White Paper is the beginning of a drive to transform councils into purchasers, not providers of care. Defending his plans, Mr Dorrell said vouchers for the elderly were being tried in Labour-controlled Bradford, and he accused Chris Smith, Labour's health spokesman, of "shooting his own supporters in the back".

The White Paper said the Government wished to encourage experimentation with other ways of reinforcing people's right to influence their choice of residential or nursing home. "Some authorities are looking at voucher schemes as a way of extending and facilitating this right to choice. The Government intends to ensure that there are no legal obstacles to the use of vouchers in this way."

The White Paper also heralded tougher guidelines to stop children being allowed out of children's homes, after complaints that some have indulged in drinking and under-age sex. The White Paper says the Government stands ready to act, by issuing new guidance or changing the law if there is seen to be a further need to tip the balance more firmly in favour of adults. Social workers will also need to undergo more training if they wish to work with children.

The old people's homes sell-off was attacked by Mr Smith as "ideologically imposed". He said it would be cancelled by an incoming Labour government and Labour would legislate to establish a social-services council to oversee standards of care.

Some 76,000 people living in 2,547 homes in England and Wales are likely to be affected. In future, local authorities will only be able to provide care themselves if they can prove the private or voluntary sector cannot meet such needs. The White Paper also warns that it is the responsibility of individuals to plan to meet their own needs and that family and friends should be willing to act as carers.

It aims to drive down the cost of social services, which in the 10 years to 1994-5 saw spending rise 75 per cent in real terms. A survey commissioned recently by Mr Dorrell found that the average cost of a week's residential care in a council home in 1994-95 was pounds 283, compared to pounds 246 in a voluntary or private sector home.

A social-services reform Bill would also bring in an independent regulation of standards by local health and social services working together.

While independent care homes welcomed the move, unions and charities described it as "dogma gone mad", saying it signalled an end to the public- service ethos. And, embarrassingly for the Government, the first of its programme of reviews of social services departments published today found that Stockport social services was "doing well" and providing "high-quality services to meet the needs of very vulnerable people". Evaluation of Stockport's services by the Audit Commission and the Department of Health showed three out of four people were happy with them. "Not only does the idea of public service still exist, but people seem to like it."

Barry Hassell, chief executive of the Independent Health Association, said the paper was a "positive move for consumers taxpayers and providers alike".

Unison's national officer, John Findlay, said: "Worryingly, these proposals open the door to exploitation of people in need of a range of home-care support, including meals-on-wheels, by faceless multinational companies who will never be able to replicate the attention and care that these popular local services provide."

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