All 1 Debates between Baroness Flather and Earl Howe

Elderly People: Powers of Attorney and Living Wills

Debate between Baroness Flather and Earl Howe
Monday 12th January 2015

(9 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Earl Howe Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for bringing this important issue to the House. At a time traditionally associated with making resolutions it feels like a particularly appropriate moment to be considering how we plan for later life together with our families and loved ones. I hope she will agree with me that the contributions from all speakers this evening have combined to make for an excellent debate.

I am sure all noble Lords would agree with the basic premise that all citizens should be cared for and treated in a manner that they themselves would choose, at a time in their life when they may no longer be able to make decisions themselves. The Mental Capacity Act 2005—the MCA—provides the legislative framework for how caregivers should support individuals who may lack the mental capacity to make decisions themselves. The Act and its associated code of practice emphasise the importance of treating each person as an individual and of seeking out their particular wishes and preferences, to ensure that any decision made is in the best interests of that person.

Noble Lords will, I am sure, be aware of the excellent work of the Select Committee of this House which scrutinised the implementation of the MCA last year. Its report, published in March 2014, highlighted that awareness of the Act was poor and that as a result many individuals were not aware of or taking up their legal rights. The Government embraced this finding and set out a programme of work in our response, which was entitled Valuing every voice, respecting every right. The response sets out the great challenge we face—essentially that of bringing about a change in culture whereby individuals are comfortable talking openly with friends and families about their wishes for later life and where wider society treats those who lack capacity with the same respect as those who have capacity.

The noble Baroness asked specifically about lasting powers of attorney—LPAs, to use the abbreviation—and living wills. An LPA allows someone with mental capacity to appoint an attorney to look after their affairs in the event that they lose capacity at some point in the future. As well as the traditional property and finance LPAs, the MCA legislated for health and welfare LPAs, which, I believe, are the focus of the noble Baroness’s question. There are currently more than 1.3 million LPAs registered, and applications are increasing at a rate of 20% year on year. This is good news, but we do not intend to rest on our laurels, especially when we look into the statistics and see that for every three finance and property LPAs registered, only one health and welfare LPA is recorded. The Office of the Public Guardian, which has responsibility in Government for registering LPAs, is using all available opportunities to raise awareness of LPAs through conference events, media engagements and work with multiple partners across finance, legal, health and care settings.

A number of noble Lords voiced concerns that executing an LPA is difficult and complicated. A good example of recent success is the LPA digital tool. This tool allows applicants to enter all the required information step by step on a personal computer and then simply print it out, add the relevant signatures, and send it to the OPG. This online service was the first so-called “government digital exemplar” to pass the Government Digital Service’s stringent new 26-point test. We believe and hope that this user-friendly service will help drive further increases in LPA registrations.

In 2015, the Department of Health and the OPG will continue to work closely to raise awareness of health and welfare LPAs. The department is in the final stages of production of a statement of rights which will inform the public about their rights under the MCA, including their right to make an LPA. In addition, the OPG is looking at how LPAs are used and will look to include use within the NHS as part of this project. This should lead to potential new guidance for the health system on LPAs.

Noble Lords will I am sure be aware that overall policy responsibility for the Mental Capacity Act lies with the Ministry of Justice. This was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. I can inform the House today that the Ministry of Justice plans to run a campaign to raise public awareness of the options for planning for the future and encourage members of the public to think about what would happen in the event of their death or if they lost their mental capacity and needed someone to make decisions for them.

As for living wills, an issue which was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, the House will be aware that this term has no strict legal meaning but in common usage can be taken to describe an individual’s wishes and views about any future medical treatment or indeed any other care, support or lifestyle preferences. An advance decision to refuse treatment however does have a specific legal meaning under the Mental Capacity Act. End-of-life decisions are intensely personal matters. As individuals, our views on how we would like to be cared for can change over time, even when we still have full mental capacity. The Government’s policy is to seek to ensure that individuals are aware of their rights under the law—to make them aware that they have the choice to make a living will or advance decision to refuse treatment—but fundamentally to allow the individual to decide if they want to exercise this right. Our awareness raising efforts here are tied closely to our work to raise understanding of the wider provisions of the MCA. This work is multi-faceted: professional training, which I will mention again in a moment; revising our national governance structures; and ensuring that the MCA is a key line of inquiry in the Care Quality Commission’s new inspection model for care homes and hospitals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, cited various obstacles which she felt can deter people from registering an LPA. One of these was the cost factor, which was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler. The OPG appreciates that the cost of making an LPA may be an important factor for those who wish to plan ahead. The cost of an LPA is £110. LPA forms, however, have been designed so that they can be completed without a solicitor. However, if a person chooses to seek advice from a solicitor they will have to pay the solicitor’s fees, which may vary and, of course, are a consideration. Another obstacle cited by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Flather, was that of complexity. We need to look at the balance of the arguments here. On the one hand, as I have mentioned, there are more than 1.3 million current instruments registered and LPA applications are increasing at quite a rate. Nevertheless, the OPG recognises that it is important to ensure that the LPA process is as straightforward as possible and acknowledges that some people find the existing LPA forms too complex to complete without legal assistance. It continually reviews its forms to make sure that they are easily understood. The OPG is also rewriting and restructuring its guidance and correspondence on LPAs so that it is clear, consistent and accessible to all.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked whether Scottish powers of attorney were recognised in England and Wales. We are aware of the important question of cross-border recognition of powers of attorney, and are considering how best to address it. We are in frequent communication with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations—for example, in Northern Ireland, where that Administration is consulting on new mental capacity legislation based on our Mental Capacity Act. Clearly, raising awareness of issues surrounding mental capacity is a UK-wide concern. My officials intend to share learning with colleagues in the devolved Administrations as part of our upcoming work programme. I will be happy to write to the noble Baroness with the precise legal response in terms of the validity of Scottish lasting powers of attorney in England.

I agree with the noble Baroness that raising awareness is important. We recognise that awareness among the general public of what an LPA is and the benefits of having one is low. We are working to increase this level of awareness, as I described. Having said that, we would not seek to tell adults that they should have an LPA; ultimately we believe that this is a matter of personal choice. My noble friend Lord Hodgson asked whether someone could use a power of attorney to make decisions about legacies. There are exceptions to the decisions that an attorney may make. I would be happy to write setting out these exceptions in more detail.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, that it is important for people to know if someone has an LPA in place. Good practice is always changing, but we should not forget that lasting powers of attorney are registered by the Office of the Public Guardian, which maintains a register. Those who wish to know whether an LPA is in place may apply to the OPG to search the register. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, stressed the importance of carers. I absolutely agree that carers do a fantastic job supporting those who lack capacity. I am pleased to say that my department has worked closely with the Standing Commission on Carers—

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
- Hansard - -

My Lords—

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is limited time.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
- Hansard - -

Yes, I will be quick. The Office of the Public Guardian charges a lot of money to give the information.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will write to the noble Baroness about that. The Standing Commission on Carers, which represents the needs of carers to the government policy-making process, is a body we are working closely with. It will help us channel our new statement of rights directly to carers, providing them with an understanding of the rights of the person they care for under the law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, spoke about the need for professional training. I agree that that is vital. Health and social care professionals need to learn the basics of the MCA through their initial training and to keep updated on this through continuing professional development. Health Education England provides national leadership for planning and developing the whole healthcare workforce. The mandate set for it by the Department of Health specifically states that Health Education England should,

“work with … partners … to improve skills and capability to respond … to the needs of people who may lack capacity as well as maximise the opportunities for people to be involved in decisions about their care”.

The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, indicated that he felt that there was a lack of government leadership in this area. I would defend, in fact, our leadership record. We do not want to shy away in the least from our responsibilities when it comes to supporting better implementation of the Act. The legislation underpinning the MCA has been widely praised. Indeed, only a few months ago, we were visited by a delegation from the Swedish Government, who are looking to learn from our legislation as they draft their own. The problem is not the framework. The problem is a lack of understanding at the local level on the ground. It is the Government’s belief that the primary drivers of better implementation of the MCA are local organisations—hospitals, care homes, local banks and solicitors. That is why we intend to make the new national mental capacity forum, which we are setting up, predominantly outward looking. Its emphasis will be on forging collaborations, but then taking these out into the country and putting actions in place at the local level. I would be happy to write further on that, when I do write, as I shall, after this debate.

I have overshot my time but, in conclusion, I emphasise that planning for a time in later life where we are unable to make our own decisions is something that we are all likely to benefit from and which can ease the burden on our loved ones. Unfortunately, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, reminded us, I know many people find this type of conversation uncomfortable—even morbid, perhaps. That is to an extent understandable: no one wants to dwell on the possibility of a serious debilitating disease or, indeed, on death itself.

Ultimately, however, planning for the future can be greatly empowering. It can provide a degree of comfort as we approach a vulnerable period in our lives, it can allow us to determine how we are treated—which itself can improve our well-being and health outcomes—and it can provide comfort to our friends and family. The Government are determined to support our citizens in this regard, and the thoughts and expert advice of noble Lords are, as always, most welcome.