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Hansard 14 Apr: Column 669-676 ...
Hansard 14 Apr: Column 669-676

Social services in Southend are in crisis, one of the town's MPs told the commons. David Amess, Conservative MP for Southend West, said that view was not just his, but that of the Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled council.

The local authority, which spends above standard spending assessment on social services, would argue that things were not in a good way when it became a unitary authority two years ago, taking over education and social services from Essex CC. The main budgetary pressures were provision for people with learning difficulties and children in care. Southend has no secure residential accomodation for children.

Mr Amess acknowledged there had been cuts during the 18 years of Conservative government, and recently restructuring and increases in charges. At present, further extra charges were proposed for meals on wheels and other services. Three of the six residential homes had been closed, which saved£1m, and a fourth had become a rehabilitation and respite care unit. Having analysed projections for next year, Mr Amess said he believed there would be further cuts.

At Southend Hospital, 64 beds were blocked, 28 with social services cases. Local residential home owners were concerned there was no longer any money for nursing care. Private owners were expected to maintain their residents on£36 a day. 'That is ridiculous. They have to maintain higher standards and higher staffing levels on half the amount the council claims. It is a very difficult situation', said Mr Amess.

Earlier this year, the council said it had 447 'nationally assisted' asylum seekers. Now it seemed to have well over 2,000 asylum seekers.

Health minister Yvette Cooper said the government had increased resources to Southend for social services by£5.1m - 16.5% - over the past two years. It was a new unitary authority which had made significant progress overall, modernising through the use of new grants.

'As I speak, a review is being conducted by a joint team from the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission to establish how well the council and its partners are discharging their social services responsibilities for the benefit of users and carers, and whether they are doing so in the most effective way', said the minister.

The first year's appraisal of Southend's performance showed real progress, as reflected in plans submitted to the department of health. Ms Cooper said there had been progress on many aspects of its work with children and in parenting.

Southend had many people with learning difficulties receiving services, and the government was giving serious consideration to establishing consistency and effectiveness in such services across the country. Last month, the department of health made a payment of£49,000 to Southend 'fully reimbursing the council for the costs that it had incurred in dealing with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children'.

The minister concluded: 'The evidence is that in its first two years Southend has made every effort to make proper use of the additional funds made available and the support and guidance provided by the government. The council has difficult choices to make, but it is not in crisis. It is making strides in delivering cost-effective services, which we are actively monitoring, and my department will continue to help the council to make the best use of its increasing resources'.

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