Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Winner all right... if you've a stake in private care homes

Mickael Barzalona celebrates riding Pour Moi to victory in The Investec Derby
Mickael Barzalona celebrates riding Pour Moi to victory in The Investec Derby

Pour Moi, owned by John Magnier and two associates at the Coolmore Stud, won the Derby on Saturday in a storming finish from Treasure Beach, owned by the same trio.

Celebrations of the one-two triumph were slightly muted on account of Mr Magnier's concern for a lady for whom he has always had "a great deal of affection".

This was the Queen. Her much-fancied nag, Carlton House, had gone off favourite at 5/2 and come home a creditable third.

But everyone, so the papers said, had fervently wanted the horse to win and give Her Majesty a Derby winner at last. It would have made a perfect coda to the Royal wedding, the visit to the south and so forth.

So, a tinge of disappointment. "I only wish that someone else owned the third," said Mr Magnier. Meanwhile, the Castlebeck group - owned by Mr Magnier and two other associates connected to Coolmore, celebrity developers JP McManus and Dermot Desmond - had been in the headlines during the week as a result of a BBC Panorama programme showing the maltreatment of vulnerable people at Castlebeck's Winterbourne View home in Bristol. Attitudes to residents had been encapsulated in a sequence in which a member of staff jeered at a woman whom he'd just slapped: "Would you like me to get a razor and cut you up? You like that?"

There is no reason to believe that Mr Magnier and his associates had been aware of the practices depicted in Panorama, or would have regarded them as other than unacceptable.

A company statement explained that "JP McManus and John Magnier were shocked and have been active since [the broadcast] in instigating a root-and-branch examination of every aspect of Castlebeck."

The Bristol scandal became a news story just a month after the inquest into the death of a 38-year-old blind man with learning difficulties, Derek Lovegrove, after he'd been 'restrained' by staff at the Cedar Vale home in Nottingham, also owned by Castlebeck. Mr Lovegrove had been 'restrained' 28 times during 11 months at Cedar Vale.

The furore over Castlebeck came in the same week as the UK's biggest private-care provider, Southern Cross, in a desperate effort to stay afloat, began offering its landlords shares in the company in lieu of rent.

That the company had sold some of the properties and was renting them back from the buyers was not the least of the ironies involved. Over the past two decades, as privatisation has swathed through public services, 100,000 places in council-run homes in the UK have been replaced by 100,000 beds in facilities run by for-profit organisations.

Caring for the elderly and the vulnerable, once seen as a duty of the state, is now regarded rather as a bonanza area for private investment.

One the attractions of the industry lies in its guaranteed revenue scheme; local authorities still having a statutory duty to provide care for the residents.

Southern Cross has been a formidable operator in this field - 31,000 residents in 750 homes. Its success has been such that, three years ago, four senior executives split £35m by selling shares in the company they managed at the top of the market.

Shortly afterwards, the share price began its slide from 550p to the current 6.3p. In the interim, all four of the managers left the company.

Not everyone involved has shared in the bounty. Castlebeck was advertising a carer's job at Cedar Vale yesterday: "Join our teams of professionals, making a real difference to the lives of people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour.'' Salary £13,934-£16,880.

Southern Cross was advertising for a health care assistant in a Portstewart home to "assist clients in all aspects of their care needs (eg physical, emotional and spiritual)''. A 44-hour week, £6 an hour.

In the wake of the scandals, calls for a clear-out of for-profit providers haven't come only from bleeding hearts and political opponents of privatisation.

The current issue of business magazine Management Today comments: "If the state is having to provide a safety net anyway - as per the Government's guarantees to re-house any patient turfed out of a Southern Cross home - perhaps it would make more sense for the state to own them in the first place?

"Otherwise, people will claim that . . . this is becoming another sector where profits are privatised and losses are nationalised.''

The state's duty of care to the elderly, the infirm and the dying has, however, been somewhat diluted since 2007, when the House of Lords ruled that people in private care homes do not have the same rights under the Human Rights Act as people in local authority homes.

And who was it that had gone to court and won this ruling? Southern Cross. Privatisation: dontcha just love it?

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