Milburn retreats on care home standards

John Carvel, social affairs editor
Tuesday August 20, 2002
The Guardian

The government yesterday scrapped its plans to force owners of care homes to improve conditions for older people by making them upgrade facilities and increase minimum room sizes.
In an attempt to stop proprietors quitting the business, Alan Milburn, the health secretary, published fresh proposals allowing established homes to stay as they are indefinitely. The higher environmental standards and space requirements will apply only to new homes.

Although Mr Milburn foreshadowed the move in a statement last month, the extent of his retreat astonished the proprietors and upset campaigners for older people.

Sheila Scott, chief executive of the National Care Homes Association, said: "The extent of the concessions takes my breath away.

"It makes me wonder why we had to go through the agony of the last three years when homes were forced to close because of the proposed standards.

"Owners wanting to sell homes as going concerns were told they could not because valuers said they could not comply with the new standards. We lost 50,000 places during that period."

She said a document placed on the department's website showed that Mr Milburn was conceding on all points, including room sizes, ramps, lifts, bathing facilities and single rooms.

"People can choose the physical environment they like. Market forces will prevail and if people want larger rooms we will respond," Ms Scott said.

The charity Help the Aged said the government should not be watering down space requirements that had been accepted as good practice for the last 30 years.

"These standards are being blamed for the closure of many homes, but the real issue behind the home closures is less about room sizes and more to do with inadequate government funding for residential care," said the charity's spokesman, Mervyn Kohler.

"We think that residents should have the right to enough space to live their lives as independently as possible. This means that rooms and bathrooms should have disability access, and that people should have the space to sit comfortably with visitors, enjoy their hobbies and be able to bring some of their furniture and personal items with them into the home."

The government's concession followed the death last month of Alice Knight, 108, who went on hunger strike after the closure of her home in Norwich where she had lived happily for six years.

The owner of the home said she had to close because she could not pay for work needed to meet new standards, brought in under the Care Standards Act 2000.

But Ron Kerr, chief executive of the national care standards commission, said: "Owners should not be panicked out of business by misinformation about the new national minimum standards."

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