A local authority is referring disabled people to debt collection agencies more than 3,000 times a year for failing to pay adult social care charges, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.
Birmingham City Council (BCC) passed on more than 3,500 individual invoices to debt collectors in 2020-21, during the first year of the pandemic, and it is on course to reach that milestone again this year.
The figures add further weight to calls by disabled campaigners for an end to all care charges, and they come amid a growing cost-of-living crisis.
In 2018-19, the Labour-run council made 1,933 referrals to debt collection agencies for failure to pay non-residential social care charges, out of 5,608 people who were being charged for care and support in non-residential settings.
In 2019-20, the last year before the pandemic, this rose to 4,499 referrals, even though there were only 5,423 people paying care charges to the council that year, before falling to 3,505 referrals in 2020-21, against 5,221 people being charged for their care at home.
So far this year (up to 17 February), the council has made 3,271 referrals to debt collection agencies.
It is not year clear how many individuals are being referred every year, as the council said the figures relate to the number of individual invoices sent to the debt collection agencies it commissions.
The council failed to say by noon today (Thursday) whether it was concerned by the figures, if they showed the need for an end to care charging, and what measures it would take to address the thousands of referrals it is sending out every year.
But a council spokesperson said in a statement: “Our commissioned debt collection agencies (DCA) are an extension of Birmingham City Council’s debt collection service.
“Our aim is to contact all clients in debt in an attempt to recover funds owed to the city.
“A light touch approach is used which does not affect the client’s credit history, nor does it involve the bailiffs attending the client’s premises or the removal of goods.
“Where the DCA are unable to contact the client, the debts are returned to BCC.”
Until her victory in the Erdington by-election earlier this month, Labour’s newest MP, Paulette Hamilton, had been the council’s long-serving cabinet member for adult social care.
Cheshire Disabled People Against Cuts (CDPAC), which secured the figures from BCC, called on council leaders and MPs “to act now on the growing scandal of rising care charge debt levels”.
A CDPAC spokesperson said: “Councils are referring disabled people with care needs – on very low incomes, typically their benefit entitlement – to debt collection agencies, when they are struggling to pay the local authority’s bills for their home care needs.”
She said these bills were rising and that many of those affected were disabled people who needed support with dressing, eating, and personal care.
And she said that Hamilton appeared to have witnessed the referral of thousands of people to debt collection agencies for social care charging arrears.
She said: “Paulette was represented to the Erdington electorate during the recent parliamentary by-election as a community champion.
“We suggest she, and all cabinet members for adult social care in England, could better champion disabled people’s rights by working in equal partnership with disabled people’s organisations to implement measures that will help mitigate the cost of living and social care crises.”
This could include the “coproduction of fully accessible information on disability-related expenses, an end to debt collection agency referrals, and the cancellation of care charge debts”, she said.
Jon Abrams, campaigns and justice coordinator for Inclusion London, which is pushing for significant changes to the government’s health and care bill through its #MakeCareFair campaign, said: “We are deeply concerned by the significant number of disabled people caught up in the council’s debt collection process.
“Evidence suggests that the tactics pursued by councils – up and down the country – are pushing people over the edge and exacerbating mental distress.
“Taxing disabled people to make up for central government shortfalls is also unnecessary, as illustrated by Hammersmith and Fulham, who have scrapped care charges.
“Disabled people have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and in light of the surging cost of living, many are facing a stark choice of heating the home or putting food on the table.
“Therefore, we urge Birmingham council to reappraise its care charging and debt collection policies and find alternative ways to balance the books.”
The Labour party failed to comment on the figures this week.
Last month, Labour also failed to comment on figures which showed thousands of individuals had had debt management procedures – although not necessarily referrals to debt collection agencies – taken against them in 2020-21 for unpaid care charges for non-residential care, across just six local authorities in the north-west of England.
Picture: Birmingham Council House, by Google
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