Disabled people in Northern Ireland are hoping to persuade their devolved government to re-open the Independent Living Fund (ILF) for new claimants for the first time in 10 years.
Such a move would further highlight the contrast in support between Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both have versions of ILF, and Wales and England, which do not.
Former ILF recipients in England have had to rely on local authority support since June 2015, when the fund was closed by the Conservative government.
The organisation that runs ILF in Northern Ireland, ILF Scotland, is set to hold four events across the country this month to ask for views on allowing new claimants to apply for support from the fund, which helps disabled people with high support needs to live independently in the community.
Feedback from these events will be considered by officials from Northern Ireland’s Department of Health (DHNI), in collaboration with a working group that includes disabled people and representatives of disabled people’s organisations.
This work will then inform a briefing on potentially re-opening the fund that will be presented to Robin Swann, the minister of health.
Officials are already considering a report on the fund’s impact that was prepared by the user-led Centre for Independent Living NI.
The consultation events come nearly a year after a meeting at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, at which ILF recipients and those who do not currently qualify spoke of the fund’s importance.
At that meeting, Richard Pengelly, DHNI’s permanent secretary, said civil servants would prepare a briefing on the potential re-opening of the fund to new applicants.
Although there are more than 400 recipients of ILF support in Northern Ireland, it has been closed to new applicants since 2010.
The push for an extension comes less than two months after the Northern Ireland Assembly began to sit again, following three years of political deadlock.
Susan Douglas-Scott, chair of ILF Scotland, said: “We need to hear what people think about the possibility of re-opening the fund.
“Without hearing from disabled people themselves, we cannot move forward.
“It’s very important to us that as many people as possible attend the events to offer their insight.
“I look forward to personally meeting and talking to many of you as I will be attending and speaking at each event.”
Michaela Hollywood (pictured), from Belfast, who receives ILF funding to help pay for round-the-clock support from personal assistants, said: “Receiving support from ILF has allowed me to achieve goals that previously would not have been possible.
“I’ve been able to get a master’s degree, pursue a career, learn to drive – all things that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the funds necessary to pay for support from my personal assistants.
“Without ILF, there is no way on this planet I would be living an independent life.”
Without ILF, she would receive 200 fewer hours of support every four weeks.
She told Disability News Service that she believed there was widespread support among disabled people in Northern Ireland for reopening the fund to new claimants.
She said the main social care system was not “up to scratch” compared to ILF, which was “more person centred and follows a social model which ensures needs are met” and also provides advice and help to recipients.
A DHNI spokesperson said this morning (Thursday): “Officials are working in collaboration with departmental colleagues, health and social care trusts, ILF Scotland, the ILF Working Group NI and the ILF Stakeholder Group NI.
“In addition, four public engagement events, facilitated by ILF Scotland, will take place during March in various parts of Northern Ireland to provide people with the opportunity to share their thoughts and views.
“The minister will consider all the information presented to him before making a decision later in the year.”
ILF has been closed to new applicants since 2010.
It closed completely across the UK in June 2015, but the Scottish Government established ILF Scotland, which provides funding for former ILF recipients from Scotland and administers funding for 438 former recipients from Northern Ireland.
ILF Scotland has also opened a fund to support disabled young people in Scotland.
But ILF Scotland now wants to go further in Northern Ireland and reopen the fund to all new claimants, the first time this will have been done anywhere in the UK since 2010.
In Wales, the Welsh government ran an interim Welsh Independent Living Grant scheme, with UK government transition funding, from June 2015 until it closed in March 2018, when £27 million a year funding provided by the UK government to maintain support to former ILF recipients transferred to local authorities in Wales.
The four ILF events will take place between 10.30am and 1pm in Derry on 19 March, in Enniskillen on 20 March, in Belfast on 27 March and in Newry on 30 March. ILF Scotland said the events were open to everyone, but it was keen to hear from disabled people, carers and disabled people’s organisations. To register to attend, visit www.ilf.scot/northernireland
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