Labour’s social reform fever shows no sign of abating

Adult social care
The government wants to launch the white paper on health and social care by the end of the year. The Department of Health has set up five task forces to feed into the paper – on user choice, personalising services, staff and carers’ roles, public engagement in services and promoting independence – which must report by mid-November.

But care services minister Liam Byrne is already coming up with ideas that will both encourage and alarm social care professionals.

He has suggested councils taking over “well-being” services currently being carried out by primary care trusts.

At last month’s Labour party conference, he suggested that money saved for the NHS by preventive social care services should be channelled into social services budgets.

However, in the same fringe meeting, he questioned whether eligibility criteria for services should continue to be set by councils, rather than nationally, given worries about postcode lotteries.

The latter proposal will heighten fears that social care will be marginalised in the white paper – that, as one social services director puts it, “it will be chapter 13: social care”.

The DH’s failure to consult the Association of Directors of Social Services on plans to slash the number of PCTs, also lends credence to this view.

The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill is due to go into committee stage in the Commons with the return of parliament.

The Refugee Council is critical of the bill, particularly the move to stop giving refugees backdated benefits that have been withheld while their claims were being considered, and issue loans instead.

It has said that loans will burden refugees with debt at a time when they need help to rebuild their lives.

The Refugee Children’s Consortium, which includes the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, is hoping to table an amendment to the bill to end the government’s “section 9 policy”, which can lead to the children of failed asylum seekers being taken into care.

The Liberal Democrats have renewed their policy of allowing asylum seekers to work and the Conservatives are still pledging to set an annual quota for the number of asylum seekers accepted by the UK.

Children’s services
At the Labour conference, Tony Blair signalled the forthcoming education white paper would promote greater parental choice, despite strong opposition from many in the children’s sector who fear this will widen inequality.

Neera Sharma, principal policy officer at Barnardo’s, believes there is some potential for a backbench rebellion over the plans to create “more of a marketplace” in education. She says the plans are “not inclusive of those children who need good quality public services to turn their lives around”.

She also believes legislation is likely on some of the proposals contained in the Youth Matters green paper, published in July, particularly plans to give local authorities more statutory duties on youth services.

And she says further debate is needed on the Childcare Bill, to ensure early years provision is more accessible for the most disadvantaged families and disabled children.

She says the government should subsidise providers to boost the supply of affordable child care, saying tax credits only cover up to 70 per cent of costs while rates for disabled children are up to three times the norm.

Criminal justice
This autumn will see the introduction of the Sentencing and Youth Justice Bill, which is expected to establish intensive supervision and surveillance orders as an alternative to custody.

The Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office will also produce a joint green paper on prison education containing proposals for young offenders.

There is speculation that legislation underpinning the development of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) may be shelved.

Criminal justice minister Baroness Scotland has hinted there will be a bill, but campaigners have been frustrated with the lack of detail about it from the government.

The battle between unions and the government over the development of Noms is likely to continue, particularly over plans to open probation services to competition from the private and voluntary sectors.

The Prison Reform Trust have also said they will resist plans, announced in this year’s Budget, to merge the police, prison, probation and court inspectorates, as it fears a combined regulator will be less independent from government.

Leaked reports are suggesting that the government is planning to introduce a “Respect” Bill before the end of the year, including proposals for antisocial behaviour orders targeted at children younger than 10.

Mental health
A new Mental Health Bill, extending powers of compulsory treatment, is expected to be tabled this autumn, despite the draft version facing almost universal criticism within the sector.

Campaigners fear it will place too great an emphasis on protecting the public from a small minority of dangerous mentally ill people at the expense of the civil rights of the majority who pose no risk.

Shadow health minister Tim Loughton told last week’s Conservative conference the bill would be “torn to shreds” by legal rights experts in the House of Lords but was not optimistic the government would back down.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Andrew McCulloch says the government’s focus is on how the tribunal system could be made to work under the new bill, suggesting: “it could be a make or break issue”.

Mind policy officer Sally Hughes also expects the government to legislate separately to protect the human rights of older patients or those with learning difficulties who are treated compulsorily because doctors have doubts about their mental capacity.

Welfare reform
The Queen’s Speech included bills on incapacity benefit and housing benefit, but these may be combined into a single welfare reform bill.

A green paper on welfare reform containing the proposed incapacity benefit reforms is expected at the end of this month.

Unlike the current system, the proposed benefits, rehabilitation support allowance and disability sickness allowance, will differentiate between people with severe conditions and those with potentially more manageable ones.

People with less serious conditions will get a basic benefit at jobseeker allowance level, about £55 a week, which they can top up by attending work-focused interviews.

Mind campaigned at all three party conferences against the deduction of benefits from people who do not attend the interviews.

The reforms are meant to be in place by 2008, which the Liberal Democrats have criticised, saying the timescale is too long.

They also want a partial capacity benefit to be considered for those able to do some work, saying this would enable people to do varying amounts of paid work without fear of becoming ineligible for benefits. The Conservatives want to increase the involvement of the voluntary sector in the process.

The government also plans to replace housing benefit with an allowance which pays claimants a flat rate based on average local rents rather than paying landlords a sum based on tenants’ actual rent.

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