Minister branded a coward, after ‘avoiding’ meeting ILF protesters


newslatestThe minister for disabled people has been branded a coward after dodging a chance to meet disabled activists protesting about his decision to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF).

Scores of campaigners, including ILF-users, gathered outside the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Caxton House headquarters in Whitehall this week, chanting slogans and blocking entrances.

One activist, Paula Peters, posed in a cage to demonstrate the fears of many ILF-users that they would in future be imprisoned in their own homes or institutions once the fund was closed.

She and others said that Mike Penning – the Conservative minister for disabled people – was a “coward” for not meeting them to discuss the closure of the fund, a government-resourced trust which helps about 18,000 disabled people with the highest support needs to live independently.

Penning plans to close ILF on 30 June 2015 and hand the funds instead to local authorities, but he has refused to ring-fence that money.

And he claimed this week, in response to a parliamentary question from his Labour shadow, Kate Green, that no decision had yet been made on what funding would be provided to councils from 2016-17 onwards.

Even if the government funding continues, campaigners fear that local authorities will not be able to match the support provided by ILF and will instead use the money to fill gaps in their already straining budgets.

They say ILF is a cost-effective funding model, in contrast to the much more expensive system used by local authorities, which often provide funding only for a basic “clean and feed” model of care.

Minutes before the protest began, and less than half a mile away, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked the Conservative junior health minister Earl Howe in the House of Lords why the government was refusing to set up a reference group, to include disabled people, to oversee the ILF closure.

The disabled Labour peer, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, followed up by asking the government to monitor the level of unmet need of former ILF clients if parts of their packages were not eligible for local authority funding after ILF closed.

Earl Howe gave no guarantees to either peer, although he told Baroness Campbell the coalition would have further discussions with her about her idea.

He told Baroness Wilkins that councils would have powers to meet any needs, and “should also advise on what preventive services, information or advice, or other support may be available in the wider community to help them achieve their particular outcomes”.

Penning had been invited to meet the protesters outside Caxton House to discuss their concerns, but he failed to turn up, and none of the activists were allowed into the building, although North Tyneside Labour MP Mary Glindon was able to deliver a letter on their behalf.

Glindon had attended the demonstration and spoke to protesters after being invited by her constituent, Mary Laver.

Laver, who has played a prominent role in the ILF campaign, relied on the fund to support her as a “games maker” at London 2012, and to travel from her home on the edge of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to attend this week’s protest.

She said it was “disgusting” that Penning was not willing to talk to protesters, and added: “He should have the guts of his convictions to come out and face us.”

She added: “I am really scared of the future. I feel like someone on death row.”

Singer John Kelly, an ILF-user, said he was in “despair” at the threat to the fund, but “amazed at how many people have turned up today and what effort that has taken to get everybody here”.

He said he was “completely frustrated” that the closure was going ahead, even though the government lost the argument over the closure in court last November, when five ILF-users secured a high-profile court of appeal victory.

Despite the court ruling that Esther McVey – at the time the minister for disabled people – had breached the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty, the judgment meant only that the government had to reconsider its decision, this time paying “proper attention” to its legal obligations.

Penning told MPs on 6 March that he had done just that and had decided to go ahead with the original decision to close ILF.

Disabled singer Victoria Oruwari, who performed alongside Kelly in Graeae’s production of The Threepenny Opera, which completed its tour earlier this month, said: “I am here because I got to know John and understand a lot more about the ILF, and saw how he needed PAs to help him.

“What cuts me really deep is knowing if that fund is cut off he will not be able to come on tour with us.

“It would confine him to four walls and timed care. From a humanitarian point-of-view, I am just very disappointed with the way the government have handled it.

“I feel they are targeting the wrong people. I feel that disabled people do not deserve to be treated like this.”

Matt Goodsell, who lives in south London with his partner, who is also an ILF-user, said his message to Penning was: “People are dying because of these cuts.”

If the fund closed, he said, he “couldn’t function as a person”, and he added: “With support I am a man with a masters who contributes to society. Without it, I am nothing.”

Writer and performer Penny Pepper, another ILF-user, said it was “sickening” that they had won the court case, and yet the government was still closing the fund.

But she warned Penning and his colleagues that she and other campaigners were “more committed to the fight than ever”.

Jonathan Kaye, an ILF-user for nine years, said he was not as worried about keeping ILF open as some campaigners.

He said: “I don’t think it will make much difference whether the ILF is kept open or not. The most important thing is that the money that is passed over to the local authorities is totally ring-fenced. [Otherwise] that money is going to be used for other purposes.”

Kaye, an inclusion and access consultant, said: “I live a fully independent life. I work. [Closing ILF] could make life very difficult.

“The local authority’s idea of care is literally getting up, getting dressed, having food, and making sure that I am safe and medically OK.

“But [with ILF]I go to meetings and conferences and exhibitions, I go out to see friends and family. I do pretty much the same as any able-bodied person would do. That is what is under threat.”

A DWP spokeswoman told Disability News Service later that Penning had not been in Caxton House because he was needed for a Commons vote, although the first vote of the afternoon did not take place until nearly 5.15pm, two hours after the protest began.

A spokeswoman for Penning said he had been in the House of Commons all afternoon “on parliamentary business”.

14 May 2014