Coalition couldn’t care less

by Daphne Liddle

VIEWERS of the BBC Panorama programme earlier this week will have been shocked at the callous and cruel treatment inflicted on the patients at the Winterbourne View residential care home for people with learning difficulties and autism.

Since the secret filming of life inside the home, on the outskirts of Bristol, four staff members have been arrested, another 13 suspended and the patients moved to “somewhere safe”.

The hospital’s owners, Castlebeck, have apologised unreservedly and decided to review what is happening at the other 56 homes the company runs. Though privately owned and run, the 24-bed home is funded by taxpayers.

Care Services Minister Paul Burstow said the Government regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), had been asked to conduct an urgent investigation.

During five weeks spent filming undercover, the BBC reporter captured footage of some of the hospital’s most vulnerable patients being repeatedly pinned down, slapped, dragged into showers while fully clothed, taunted and teased.

shocking

The situation is shocking but not surprising. Privately run care homes are businesses; they exist to make a profit. Care home staff are usually very low paid and many are inadequately trained. The funding given to these homes to look after our society’s most vulnerable people is being cut — and so is the quality of care.

The vast majority of care home staff are decent caring people who do the best they can. They are horrendously exploited and overworked. And it is inevitable that if you pay people peanuts and treat them like dirt a few will become so demoralised they start to behave like scum.

And of course the inspection regimen has been cut almost out of existence. Most care homes now carry out their own inspections and send reports to the relevant authorities. This is a crime committed by the Government against vulnerable people. Without independent inspection some level of abuse becomes inevitable.

Around 31,000 elderly residents of another chain of care homes, Southern Cross, are facing a different problem. A combination of rising costs and funding cuts has put the chain deeply in debt.

Darlington-based Southern Cross recently reported half-year losses of £311 million. The company, which operates 750 homes, has warned that it is in “critical financial condition”.

Southern Cross is trying to negotiate with the landlords of its homes to accept a temporary reduction of one third in rents to ease its financial crisis.

no law

But there is no law to say the landlords will have to accept this proposal or to prevent them evicting Southern Cross. They too, are business people and need to make a profit.

Judy Downey, from the Relatives and Residents Association charity, said the developments were worrying. “It’s a mixture of anguish and concern and panic,” she said. “The whole business of closure of care homes is something the Relatives and Residents Association has been really concerned about for some time.

“Homes close on a regular basis for one reason or another, and we’re very concerned that they have the same status in law as a corner shop that gives up, and people are left high and dry.”

Roy Lilley, a health policy analyst and former NHS Trust chair, said Southern Cross was in a difficult position. “The problem is in a normal business, if you run into trading difficulties, you can circle the wagons, you can close some branches that are not profitable, you can get rid of staff and just generally cut the overheads,” he said.

“But here you can’t do that, you’ve got 30,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people who depend on this company for a service.

“You can’t shove them around; you can’t decant them because clearly some of them are very frail and very vulnerable.”

Nevertheless Health Select Committee chair Stephen Dorrell MP — a veteran from Thatcher’s government — said the Government should not consider a banks-style bail-out of the company.

“It doesn’t seem to me that it’s the taxpayers’ job to fund the losses that have been suffered by the people who have invested in Southern Cross; that was their risk and it’s their loss,” Dorrell told the media.

And there we have the market values of the Coalition government encapsulated — the rights of the landlords to their rents take priority over the needs of the elderly residents.

The residents have no property and no shares; to the free market they exist only as commodities and that only as long as taxpayers are ready to hand over profitable sums for their care.