The government has ignored repeated calls from disabled people’s organisations and allies to scrap measures that limit the rights of disabled adults and children to social care and education support during the pandemic crisis.
In the first parliamentary review of temporary measures introduced through the government’s Coronavirus Act in March, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock insisted that measures that suspended key protections in the Care Act and the Children and Families Act would not be switched off.
But he did make one concession, agreeing to revoke powers that reduced the rights of people using the mental health system.
MPs overwhelmingly backed Hancock by voting yesterday (Wednesday) to continue the social care, education and other temporary measures introduced through the Coronavirus Act.
More than 150 organisations, including Disability Rights UK, Inclusion London, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People and Disabled People Against Cuts, had signed a statement calling on the government to remove the powers in the act that “diminish the rights of those who rely on social care and education support”.
Hancock (pictured) argued that the care measures in the Coronavirus Act had “without doubt helped us both to protect the NHS and to support social care”.
But he said that he would scrap powers that could have been used to reduce the number of doctors’ opinions needed to detain someone under the Mental Health Act (MHA) from two to one and to extend legal time limits on the detention of mental health patients.
He said these had been “powers of last resort” and that he was “not persuaded” that they had been necessary.
Akiko Hart, chief executive of the National Survivor User Network, welcomed the announcement on the mental health powers, although she said it was “perhaps unsurprising”.
She said: “No one liked the proposed amendments to the MHA, they didn’t make a huge amount of sense and they became increasingly at odds with the forthcoming white paper on the reform of the MHA.”
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said the vote to continue to allow the so-called “Care Act easements” to continue confirmed that MPs “have failed to consider or listen to us”.
BRIL said it had been contacted by disabled people across the country who have had cuts to their support or had essential services “paused” during the pandemic.
It also pointed to Inclusion London’s Abandoned, Forgotten and Ignored report and a new investigation published yesterday on the openDemocracy website, which have shown that some local authorities “seem to be using the pandemic to justify taking measures against people who are shielding and already struggling”.
More than half the councils responding to openDemocracy’s freedom of information requests admitted cutting the amount they were spending on care in people’s own homes, and on direct payments to disabled people, during the first wave of the pandemic, even though other councils had increased their spending to meet rising demand.
Earlier in the week, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell told the House of Lords that all the easement powers allowed under the Coronavirus Act must be “switched off”.
She said there was “mounting evidence that disabled children, adults and older people are experiencing disproportionate stress and serious health risks as a direct result of decreased care and support services during this pandemic”.
She said: “I would argue that the continuation of the easement powers is neither necessary nor proportionate.”
And she argued that allowing them to continue would condemn many of those disabled people in the most vulnerable situations to “another six months of misery, and possibly death”.
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, who has a disabled child and is patron of Disability Law Service, told Hancock yesterday that the Coronavirus Act “undermines the rights to care of disabled people”.
He said the act breaches the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Davey said: “Two thirds of the public believe that the act’s social care reductions are unacceptable.
“Liberal Democrats agree, as do more than 150 organisations campaigning for the rights of disabled people that have called for those sections of the act to be withdrawn.”
He pointed to Inclusion London’s Abandoned, Forgotten and Ignored report, on the experience of disabled people during the pandemic, which he said “should shame this government”.
He said: “It has horrifying reports from disabled people across the country about cuts to their care packages, food shopping not done, personal washing not done and vital care at home not done.
“Speaking as the father of a disabled child, huge numbers of parents of disabled children have been hit.”
He called on MPs to “speak up for those families, for those carers, for disabled people and vote against this measure tonight”.
But at the end of the debate, only 24 MPs voted against the government – six Labour MPs, nine Liberal Democrats, seven Conservatives, Green MP Caroline Lucas and the Northern Ireland Alliance MP Stephen Farry. Labour MPs had been ordered by their party to abstain. All 330 MPs who voted with the government were Conservatives.
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page