Leading article: The dangers of a circuitous approach

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The Independent Online

Last month The Independent drew attention to the inadequate conditions that exist in many care homes for the elderly. The Government will unveil a response today. Privately-run care homes will be told to submit to, and pay for, "excellence tests".

The present regulator of care homes, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), is overburdened and under-resourced. It was formed in 2009 out of the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Mental Health Act Commission and must oversee a whole range of services in addition to care homes. Last year, the CQC abolished automatic yearly inspections for such homes. And as the organisation's budget is squeezed by the Government's spending cuts, the CQC is going to find itself even more stretched.

This new approach from the Government seems to be an attempt to use the purchasing power of the state to raise care standards. Homes that refuse to submit to an excellence test risk losing public funding. Since most private-run care homes rely on local council funding for the bulk of their income, ministers expect that most will submit to them.

But there are dangers in this circuitous approach. Who will perform these inspections if not the CQC? Will private inspection bodies be allowed to bid for business? If care homes are paying for the inspections, there is a risk that they could become corrupted and confer the awards that their paymasters demand, rather than the awards that are deserved. This is precisely what occurred when the banks paid supposedly independent credit rating agencies to grade their subprime mortgage securities.

Would it not be more effective simply to levy a tax on care home firms and use the funds to bolster the resources of the CQC? The CQC got rid of its star rating scheme for care homes last year. This looks like a way of reversing that decision, but on the cheap. We must wait to see the details of the new testing regime before reaching a final judgement. But the Government should be warned: any new system that allows the scandal of poor conditions in care homes to continue will be unacceptable.