The minister for disabled people knew that closing the Independent Living Fund (ILF) would mean many disabled people would lose their ability to live independently in the community, a judge has concluded.
Two disabled men with high support needs – Gabriel Pepper and John Aspinall – wanted to force the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to withdraw its closure decision.
But this week Pepper and Aspinall, both of whom are ILF-users, lost their legal bid to overturn the government’s decision to close ILF on 30 June next year and pass the non-ring-fenced funding to local authorities.
Despite the decision by a high court judge, Mrs Justice Andrews, ILF-users and other disabled campaigners vowed to continue the fight against closure “in every way that we can”.
Campaigners believe closing ILF – a government-resourced trust which helps about 18,000 people with the highest support needs to live independently – will threaten many disabled people’s right to live with dignity, and could force them into residential care or make it impossible to work or take part in everyday activities.
The Scottish government plans to establish a Scottish Independent Living Fund from 1 July 2015, while the Welsh government is consulting on whether to set up its own ILF.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is planning a lobby of MPs on the ILF closure on 6 January, from 2pm, and is collecting signatures on an open letter, so that disability organisations can again make clear their opposition to ILF closure.
The letter states that the ILF closure “effectively signals the end of the right to independent living for disabled people in the UK”, and has so far been signed by nearly 40 organisations, and more than 500 individuals.
Many campaigners believed the battle to overturn the closure decision had been won when Pepper, Aspinall and three other ILF-users secured victory in the court of appeal last year.
The court ruled that the decision to close ILF breached the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty, but the judgment meant only that the government had to reconsider its closure decision, this time paying “proper attention” to its legal obligations.
Mike Penning, by then the new minister for disabled people, told MPs in March that he had reconsidered and had decided to go ahead with the original decision to close ILF, although he delayed the closure date by three months until 30 June 2015.
Lawyers for Pepper and Aspinall argued that Penning had not been given enough information to assess the impact of closure and consider alternatives. But the high court ruled this week that Penning had not breached equality laws.
Mrs Justice Andrews concluded: “The evidence before the court indicates that throughout the entire process the Minister paid very close attention to the potential negative impact on existing users of closure of the ILF.”
She added: “The information provided to the minister identified in sufficiently unambiguous terms the inevitable and considerable adverse effect which the closure of the fund will have, particularly on those who, as a consequence, will lose the ability to live independently.”
Disabled people’s organisations were united in their disappointment with the judgment.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, based in Norfolk, said: “This is a blow for all disabled people as the responsibility for funding now goes to cash-strapped local authorities with no guaranteed money from central government beyond the first year.
“In Norfolk, adult social care will now have to pick up the tab for supporting ILF recipients which will just ration out further the resources that other disabled people of all ages in the county have for their care and support.
“More and more disabled people will become prisoners in their own homes.”
Sue Bott, director of policy and development for Disability Rights UK, said the decision was “very disappointing”.
She said: “Many ILF recipients face an uncertain future of not knowing whether they will be able to continue to live independently in the community, particularly given the complete inadequacy of resources for social care and the implementation of the Care Act.”
Bristol Disability Equality Forum (BDEF) said it was “severely disappointed” by the judgement, but paid tribute to the disabled people who had fought to bring the case to court.
The forum said the judgment had not been about the “rights or wrongs” of closure but whether Penning had been aware of its likely effects when he made the decision.
A forum spokesman said: “This judgment comes at a time when disabled people in Bristol and across the country have been hit the hardest by welfare reform, cuts to services and austerity measures.”
The forum said many disabled people had been denied support since ILF was closed to new applicants in 2010, forcing them to rely on cash-strapped councils, which were already struggling to provide services and will face further financial pressure when the Care Act comes into effect in 2015.
Mark Williams, BDEF’s co-chair and an ILF-user himself, said: “We have had Black Friday but Bleak Monday occurred on 8 December 2014 [the day the judgment was published]for disabled people.
“This decision will move independent living back 30 years. It may seem that we have lost the fight nationally, but we are determined to make sure that disabled people receive the best package of care they deserve.
“Disabled people will carry on fighting, even when the chips are down.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “The closure of the ILF effectively signals the end of the right to independent living for disabled people in the UK.
“Whilst never perfect, the ILF represents a model of support that has enabled thousands of disabled people to enjoy meaningful lives and to contribute to society as equal citizens.
“Since the closure of the fund to new applicants in December 2010, we have seen disabled people left with their most basic needs unmet and unable to seek employment, to volunteer or go into education or simply even to leave the house.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Regardless of this ruling, disabled people will not be pushed back into the margins of society, we will not go back into the institutions.
“Our place is in the community alongside our family and friends and neighbours and we are fighting to stay.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had intervened in the court case to warn that – if the closure went ahead – ILF-users would in future “be assessed under different criteria, which in many cases will result in significantly reduced support”.
The EHRC also argued that – even if council were given money in compensation – the closure would “result in loss of dignity and independence for many ILF recipients”, and would be “a regressive step in terms of the right of disabled people to live independently”.
11 December 2014