Two disabled peers have called on the health and social care secretary to scrap powers given to local authorities that allow them to suspend some of their social care duties during the coronavirus pandemic.
Crossbench peers Baroness [Jane] Campbell and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson have written to Matt Hancock to express their concerns and call for him to “switch off” the powers.
They say their continuing existence is causing anxiety to disabled people. ahead of an expected second peak in coronavirus cases, and a rising number of infections.
The controversial Care Act “easements” were introduced in March as part of the government’s Coronavirus Act, and were intended to help the social care system manage the pressures caused by the pandemic.
But they led some critics to warn that the new powers would “run a coach and horses” through disabled people’s right to social care.
Among the new powers, councils were able to suspend their legal duty to carry out detailed assessments of disabled people’s care and support needs, and their legal duty to meet all eligible care and support needs.
They were told only to use the new “easements” where it was “essential in order to maintain the highest possible level of services”.
Now the two disabled peers – supported by 28 cross-party peers who signed their letter, including disabled Liberal Democrat peers Baroness [Sal] Brinton and Baroness [Celia] Thomas – have asked Hancock to scrap the powers, in advance of a suspected second peak of the virus.
Only eight councils are believed to have used the powers since they were introduced, and there are no local authorities currently operating under the easements.
But Baroness Campbell (pictured, right) and Baroness Grey-Thompson (left) say in their letter that there is evidence that the limited use of the easements had still had a “serious” impact on wellbeing and safety.
They say that the prospect of further use of the Care Act easements “hangs over the heads of people already so disproportionately affected by this pandemic”.
They say in the letter: “We are grateful that councils have been restrained when taking up these powers in a very strained and difficult time.
“It is truly heartening that after their use at the peak of the pandemic, we have now reached a period where no council sees the need to operate easements.
“With this in mind, we urge you to take this opportunity to switch them off.
“This would significantly reduce the anxiety felt for those who rely on care and support to live in the community.”
They say that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and that “even in areas where councils have not applied easements, disabled people have seen their care provision cut”.
They point in the letter to interim findings from a COVID-19 survey hosted by the Be Human initiative, which showed there had been “cancelled support, denied access to assessments and decreased flexibility” during the crisis*.
And they say that their own discussions with disabled people’s organisations showed that the level of “fear and anxiety” caused by the prospect of the easement powers continuing was “worryingly high”.
A DHSC spokesperson told Disability News Service: “The Care Act easements were put in place to ensure the best possible provision of care to people in these exceptional circumstances.
“They are kept under review, are time-limited and should be used as narrowly as possible.
“Local authorities should do all they can to continue meeting their existing duties but if they are unable to do so, it is essential that they are able to prioritise care so that the most urgent and acute needs are met.
“Evidence shows the easements have been used appropriately by local authorities.”
Baroness Campbell also asked the Tory health and social care minister Lord Bethell last week if he would consider switching off the easement powers.
He told her: “It was my impression that they had not been used in the vast majority of areas – only in a few areas – and that, where they had been applied, their use had been of a mainly administrative rather than practical nature.
“However, I am happy to look into the question that she asks and to reply to her by letter.”
Meanwhile, in the Commons yesterday, Ed Davey, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, told the prime minister that research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership showed that three quarters of families with disabled children had their care and support stopped during lockdown.
Davey, who has a disabled child and is patron of Disability Law Service, said the Coronavirus Act was “partly to blame, as it relaxed the duties to assess and meet the needs of disabled people”.
He said he had seen legal advice “that suggests that the prime minister’s government broke international law when the Coronavirus Act reduced the rights of disabled people”.
Boris Johnson told him: “I must say that I am not aware of that particular allegation about the legal effect of the Coronavirus Act, and I would be only too happy to write to him very shortly to clarify the matter.”
*The initiative is hosted by In Control Partnerships and Disability Rights UK, and the survey is continuing to collect disabled people’s experiences of the pandemic, with the partnership offering advice where appropriate
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