As 2011 gave way to a new year it seems the fireworks also reignited the debate on the cost of care provided by local authorities, and the issue of who pays.
The cross party talks that stalled under the previous administration are set to resume. Not a moment too soon as people with disabilities face the dual impact of reduction in services and increased costs.
Much of the debate will focus on residential care for the elderly. However, when it comes to local authority charging practices another group, namely those under the age of 65 with severe disabilities on income related benefits, should command greater attention.
Life as a disabled person in the UK is extraordinarily expensive; the benefit and income support system has recognised this since the early Thatcher days and was designed to help people with serious disabilities meet additional costs. These were then, as they are now, items such as increased heating bills, greater wear and tear on everyday items and costs associated with having to go everywhere and do everything with the help of a carer.
Letter of the law
Anyone claiming income related benefits will receive an award letter: a document which confirms that their claim has been successful and the amount to be paid. This letter outline how an individual's circumstances have been assessed to arrive at that particular entitlement. It also bears the legend "the amount the law says you need to live" when describing the entitlement. Indeed the Hansard (House of Commons Daily Debates) archive is littered with parliamentary questions regarding the living standards of severely disabled people. In every single instance the answer includes a mention of the additional benefits paid to disabled people - benefits to which they are entitled. So why then are Local Authorities being allowed to charge for services to the extent that they take this additional benefit away?
Over recent months I, along with many advisors like me, have received an increasing flow of referrals from people seeking help to appeal the increase in charges proposed by local authorities across the country. It brings to the surface my long-term view that charging people on benefits for the services that they receive is fundamentally wrong and entirely unfair. I strongly believe that increasing these charges which will impoverish disabled people is unlawful, not to mention fiscally irresponsible on the part of Local Authorities.
Allow me to explain
If you create a benefit system that is based on a subsistence level which is appropriate to a need, any reduction will reduce a person's income to a level which compromises their existence. Given that we supposedly live in a compassionate society I cannot accept that parliament, in establishing this benefit system, intended that it should be used for anything other than living costs.
As I write this article I have in front of me two pieces of correspondence. One is from a client seeking my help and the other a Christmas card form my daughter. Two people who are both considered by the state to be severely disabled. They therefore both receive the highest rate of the care component of disability living allowance. So far so good. But here is the catch: My daughter receives services from the NHS and is therefore not required to contribute anything towards the cost of her care. Unfortunately and unfairly my client receives services from a Local Authority and has now been informed that charges for his care will be going up. In practice it means that his family will retain a meagre £11.50 of the additional £70 benefits which they had been awarded. Two similar cases. Two very different financial scenarios. In fact the unfairness is so blindingly obvious that one almost despairs at having to point it out. It is a lottery; one that is based on the identity of the agency responsible for your care.
Set to win
The frustrating thing about the referrals I receive for assistance with appeals against increased Local Authority charges is that we will win in practically each and every single case. Unfortunately the people I help struggle to share my confidence and, despite my reassurances, spend months in deep worry and despair.
The rules on charging are clear: If you are going to charge a person their disability related benefits for care then their disability related expenditures must have been taken into account. It means that proposals by local authorities to bring in 'banding' and 'fixed disregards' are quite simply unlawful. So too is any measure that increases charges without having considered an individual's specific disability related expenditure and ensuring that they retain sufficient resources.
Local Authorities set their budgets for the forthcoming year in November. Having worked in the public sector myself I know that these budgets include an assumption about any increased income that they will receive as a result of increased charges. In the case of increased care fees it is an income which they are unlikely to receive.
In the light of this I can't help but wonder if Local Authorities consider the limits of the law when planning their budgets. Or do they simply implement increases in charges in the hope that the flood of costly judicial reviews will not completely erode the additional income they had budgeted for?
The power of Local Authorities to levy charges for community care services is discretionary: It cannot be exercised by implementing a charging policy aimed purely at increasing income without due consideration for the needs of individuals. Attempts to do so are time and time again met with legal challenges - most of which are successful.
So as we prepare to resume the debate about funding community care let's place the burden where it belongs: on the government and the tax payer. The practice of impoverishing people on benefits, not least those who live with a disability, simply does not suit a country like ours.
Ps. Changes to the housing benefit system are also on the horizon. Watch this space for my views on how forthcoming changes could leave vulnerable people on a very sticky wicket.