Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) say measures in the government’s emergency Coronavirus Act – which became law yesterday (Wednesday) – will “run a coach and horses” through their rights to social care.
They spoke out as MPs and peers debated, and then approved, measures that will now restrict rights to social care, the rights of people in mental distress, and the rights of disabled children to education and other support.
A campaign launched by Inclusion London saw more than 2,000 emails raising concerns about the bill sent to MPs in just two days at the start of the week.
Inclusion London said disabled people and DPOs had reacted with “deep shock and concern” to measures that will now remove councils’ duties to provide social care, limit the rights of disabled children to education, and place further restrictions on the rights of people in mental distress under the Mental Health Act.
Tracey Lazard (pictured), chief executive of Inclusion London, said the bill “runs a coach and horses through social care” and “strips disabled people of our rights to this support and removes from local authorities the duties to provide it”.
The social care measures mean key parts of the Care Act will now be suspended, according to one barrister, with another legal expert saying the government had amended the act by “stripping it bare”.
Dennis Queen, a spokesperson for Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “We need urgent action to protect disabled people from the coronavirus and support us to manage our lives – including if we live in an institution, or don’t have access to internet, or physical support.
“Instead, we are having our human rights reduced daily during this crisis.
“We’re horrified that the coronavirus bill will slash people’s right to social care support and humane mental health care, with these brutal new laws that weaken our rights under the Care Act.
“It seems no protections are in place to keep the usual health and social care system running during national crisis, which will lead to further loss of life.”
Queen added: “We wholly support the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel call [this week, in a briefing to Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham] to maintain social care standards in Greater Manchester under the Care Act 2014 and not lessen them under the new bill.
“We ask our government to release money so our local authorities can provide this support.”
The Alliance for Inclusive Education said, in a detailed briefing on the act, that it feared the legislation would increase the number of disabled pupils being educated outside mainstream education.
Among the measures in the act, the education secretary is given the power to amend parts of the Children and Families Act (CFA) 2014 so that a local council only has to use “reasonable endeavours” to provide the education, health and social care needs named in a disabled pupil’s education health and care (EHC) plan.
The education secretary is also given the power to amend CFA so that a school would no longer have a duty to admit a disabled child if that school was named in the child’s EHC plan.
ALLFIE said it feared that “disabled pupils and students requiring education, health and care services will either not get it or may only receive the provision within segregated and institutionalised settings” if these duties from the 2014 act were suspended.
The National Survivor User Network (NSUN) added to the concerns it raised last week about measures in the act to relax safeguards in mental health legislation, and also highlighted the impact on disabled people with care and support needs.
It said it was concerned that the act was likely to have “a serious negative impact on the lives and rights of people who live with mental ill health, distress, or trauma, as well as disabled people with care and support needs and their carers, at a time when their needs may increase”.
Akiko Hart, chief executive of NSUN, said: “We recognise that this is a time of unprecedented national crisis for us all but are concerned that the needs of those who live with mental ill-health, trauma and distress will be pushed into the background.”
The act now allows someone to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act with the approval of just one doctor, rather than the current two.
It also allows the temporary extension or removal of some of the time limits in the Mental Health Act, if staff numbers become “severely adversely affected during the pandemic period”.
Disability Rights UK said the bill would in effect suspend the Care Act 2014 and “effectively free local authorities of their duties to provide social care support” under the act, and would only force local authorities to provide support in cases where the human rights of disabled people would otherwise be breached.
Experts, including public law barrister Steve Broach, warned there was a high threshold for proving such a breach of rights when a council fails to provide care and support.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said it had been clear from the beginning that the virus was most serious for older and disabled people and those with some long-term health conditions, and so these groups should have been given “particular attention and support”.
But, he said, “the opposite has happened” and “generalised policies have been adopted and little specific attention has been paid to vulnerable groups except where they are already in health or institutional settings”.
He said there had been “a confused and negative response to the groups most at risk”, with legislation introduced “which further restricts access to social care”.
Another national DPO, Disability Wales, was among organisations representing disabled people in Wales to raise concerns about the act.
They said the act represented “a real and present danger to the lives of disabled people” and would “effectively roll back 30 years of progress for disabled people” following years of “chronic under funding of social care which has resulted in a social care system already at breaking point”.
They said the legislation would “almost inevitably leave many thousands of disabled people without essential support or any rights to request this support” and would “put many lives at risk”.
Simone Aspis, director of the consultancy Changing Perspectives, said the act was “nothing more than another ideological attack on disabled people’s rights to life and live independently”, and accused the government of a “suspension of our rights to education, health and social care, liberty and access to justice”.
She warned that the legislation would make it easier for autistic people and people with learning difficulties to be detained in psychiatric hospitals and assessment and treatment units “indefinitely”.
Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard, the national LGBTQI+ DPO, warned of the impact of the act on LGBTQI+ disabled people, who she said were “more likely than other disabled people to be dependent on local authorities for social care, because we are the least likely to have family support from partners, children and siblings, and least likely to be living in the areas we grew up and to have support from childhood friends”.
Tracey Lazard, from Inclusion London, said the government should have been “bold” about social care, rather than “shredding what’s left of our already broken social care system”, and she called for it to “take the necessary steps to ensure this critical service is fit for purpose”.
She said: “This means current duties to provide social care must be maintained and a massive injection of funding must now be made to keep the system going under what will be extreme pressure.”
Svetlana Kotova, Inclusion London’s director of campaigns and justice, added: “It is important that in this difficult time many disabled people stood together to protect our rights.
“Over the weekend more than 2,000 of us wrote to our MPs, many of whom raised our concerns so powerfully. We will continue to stand together and support each other.”
*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
The Department of Health and Social Care
National Survivor User Network
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