The government could face another high court challenge as a result of its spending cuts, this time over new rules that will make it harder for poorer disabled people to gain further education (FE) qualifications.
The rules, introduced by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), mean that the range of free courses available to many disabled people on means-tested benefits for the new academic year has been restricted to courses up to level two (the equivalent of an A-C grade at GCSE).
Other free courses will mainly be restricted to those under the age of 24, or claiming jobseeker’s allowance, or those in the “work-related activity group” of employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit.
Even disabled people with the highest barriers to employment and education, those placed in the ESA “support group”, will face new restrictions, even though such a course might be the first step in helping them move towards a future job.
>From next year, the restrictions will be even tighter, with only FE courses up to level one (the equivalent of GCSE grades D-G) available free to many disabled people on means-tested benefits such as income support.
X, the disabled person considering a legal challenge, wants to start a level three course in design this September, but will not be able to afford the fees of more than £1,000.
X’s lawyers believe the new rules are discriminatory and that the SFA failed in its public sector equality duty – under the Equality Act – to pay due regard to the impact of the changes on disabled people and the need to promote disability equality.
The case could be the latest in a series of high-profile judicial reviews of decisions by public bodies to slash services and spending in the wake of the government’s deficit reduction plan.
The SFA, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), has agreed to loosen the rules slightly, so that anyone on means-tested benefits who wants to take a course in order to help them find a job can have all their fees paid.
But this will only apply for this academic year and fees will only be covered at the individual college’s discretion.
Louise Whitfield, X’s solicitor, a judicial review expert from law firm Pierce Glynn, said the rule change would have a “massive impact” on disabled people, as so many of them are on low incomes and are not in a position to seek work.
She said: “It is clear from their letter that the SFA have not considered the impact on disabled people of these changes to the rules about fees. This is unlawful.”
A BIS spokesman said the government was investing £3.9 billion in post-19 further education this year, but it was “necessary and right for some costs to be shared between government, employers and learners”.
He said: “Our investment will help support relevant skills training for people in receipt of benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance, that require them to seek or prepare for work.
“To help them meet local skills needs, FE colleges and training organisations will have local discretion to provide fully subsidised courses for people on a wider range of benefits, where the training is designed to help them enter employment.”
Whitfield is now appealing urgently for other disabled people who could lose out under the new rules either this year or next year to come forward and help with the court case, particularly those interested in joining the legal challenge.
She said: “I am desperate to find new people because it is such a big issue and it will have a big impact once people start to enrol for courses this year, and the changes for next year are even worse.”
She warned that many disabled people could be unaware that the rules have changed.
Any disabled person, or disabled people’s organisation, who thinks they or their members might be affected, should call Louise Whitfield as soon as possible on 020 7407 0007 or email [email protected]. Legal advice will be free to those on means-tested benefits.
18 August 2011