A disabled activist with one of the country’s leading self-advocacy organisations has won the right to challenge in the high court a council’s decision to remove its funding.
Georgina Barrett has secured the right to a full judicial review hearing of Lambeth council’s decision not to renew annual contracts worth £118, 000 with People First Lambeth (PFL).
The funding made up 94 per cent of PFL’s annual revenue, and Barrett and other people with learning difficulties from Lambeth are now fighting for the survival of their organisation, which was set up in 1985.
Her lawyers will claim the council failed in its public sector equality duty – under the Disability Discrimination Act – to pay due regard to the impact of the cuts on disabled people and the need to promote disability equality, and to consult or engage with PFL members, before making the decision.
Earlier this year, the council refused to provide Disability News Service with a copy of the equality impact assessment it claims it carried out on its proposed cuts to adult social care services, which were agreed on 23 February.
But Barrett’s lawyers will also be challenging the council’s continuing efforts to decide on future services. They will use the new Equality Act to argue that removing PFL’s funding has made it impossible for members to secure the support they need to take part in the new consultation process.
Christina Watkins, a PFL member who attended the court hearing, told Disability News Service afterwards: “People First Lambeth had all their funding stopped by the council. They never even told us, they just done it. It’s disgusting what they have done.
“It has very badly affected everybody here. This is a lovely organisation. We have got nowhere else to go. You have got to stand up for your rights.”
Wenda Gordon, another member who attended the hearing, said: “They have cut away our support. We can’t take part in decisions and they took our voice away and we are not happy with it.
“I am angry and upset. We sit at home and do nothing. It’s not right. We try to keep People First open so people with learning difficulties can come here. I think it’s right that we do that.”
Jennifer Taylor, who also attended the court hearing, added: “I am pleased because we have got somewhere. We are people with learning difficulties and we have a right to advocacy and support. All they want is money, money, money. It’s disgusting what they have done.”
She called on other self-advocacy organisations to take similar action. She said: “They should stand up and fight for their court case like we did.”
The case is likely to be heard in the high court in London this autumn. It is the latest in a series of high-profile judicial reviews of decisions by public bodies to slash services and spending following huge cuts by the coalition government.
But this will be one of the first cases to challenge a council using the Equality Act’s new single equality duty, which came into force on 5 April.
It will also be one of the first to suggest that a public body has failed to have due regard through its decisions to the need to encourage disabled people to participate in public life.
Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with Pierce Glynn solicitors, the firm representing Barrett, said: “The whole point of having the services at PFL was so people with learning difficulties could engage in decision-making. But the council has now taken that away without consulting anyone.”
In order to secure its survival, PFL is relying on volunteers, just one paid, part-time support worker, and temporary office space secured at a peppercorn rent.
Lambeth council said it could not comment on the judicial review itself, but a spokesman said it was “facing some extremely difficult and painful choices” due to the “unprecedented £37 million of government cuts to Lambeth’s funding this year”.
He said the council “will still be spending more than £30 million next year on vital services for people with learning disabilities, including supporting a range of independent organisations that work across Lambeth, but for a number of reasons we had to take the decision not to renew our contracts with People First Lambeth”.
He said the council was beginning a consultation on “alternative services, to which all users of People First services are invited”, with the process supported by an independent “user involvement worker”.
3 August 2011