Disabled people’s organisations have praised the “bold” and “progressive” actions of a local authority after it promised to become just the second council in England to abolish all charges for care and support for disabled people in their own homes.
They have called on other local authorities to follow the example of Tower Hamlets council in east London, which is run by the Aspire party, led by former Labour politician Lutfur Rahman.
In its annual budget for 2023-24 (see page 41), approved by councillors last week, the council says it will scrap all charges for community-based care and support services from April 2024.
The pan-impairment disabled people’s organisation Real, which is based in Tower Hamlets, said it was “delighted” by the decision, which was a “bold move that flies in the face of trends across the country”.
The council currently provides community-based support for more than 2,600 people, of whom nearly 1,300 have to pay a charge – with about 700 people paying less than £50 per week and about 600 more than £50 – as a contribution to the cost of their support package.
Scrapping charges is likely to cost the council more than £2.4 million a year in lost income.
Tower Hamlets was previously one of the few councils in England that did not impose care charges, but a previous administration introduced charging because of budget deficits caused by increasing government cuts to local authority funding in the post-2010 austerity years.
Real pushed to overturn that decision while also working with the council to develop a best practice guide on calculating disability-related expenditure (DRE) – the disability-related costs that should be taken into consideration when assessing how much someone can afford to pay in care charges – which helped many disabled people “reduce their charges or escape them altogether”.
Mike Smith (pictured), its outgoing chief executive, said Real had always believed it was “morally wrong, punitive and discriminatory” that disabled people should be charged for support with the “basics of getting out of bed, eating and washing”, especially when compared to free NHS care for all.
He said: “It’s effectively a tax on being disabled.
“This progressive decision ensures the cost of essential support is spread evenly across the population, rather than only billing those people who have no choice but to use the services.”
He added: “Tower Hamlets has higher than average levels of disability amongst its population, and higher than average levels of poverty.
“The current administration should be proud of this decision, and we hope other local authorities around the country follow their example.
“It’s great that this latest news means that we have returned to be a kinder, fairer and more progressive borough for disabled people.”
But Smith said Real regretted the council’s decision not to implement the move until April 2024 as there was “plenty of evidence that disabled people have been hit disproportionately by the cost-of-living crisis.
“It’s now that disabled people need this essential financial support, not in 13 months’ time.”
And he said Real was concerned that the council would continue to pursue outstanding care charge debts after April 2024.
He said: “We would urge the local authority to review each situation case-by-case and use their discretion to waive charges.”
Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham is currently the only local authority in England not to impose charges for care and support in the home, and made that decision in 2015 following years of campaigning by disabled people, including the disabled people’s organisation Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition Against Cuts.
Helen Rowlands, a board member of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), which also campaigns against care charges, praised Real for its years of campaigning that have led to “this very welcome outcome”.
She said that the “pioneering” councils in Tower Hamlets and in Hammersmith and Fulham had proved that “with political imagination and strong commitment to equality, the inequity of care charging – which is a tax on disability – can be ended”.
And she called on other councils to begin working with disabled people’s organisations and disabled residents to end charging.
She said: “GMCDP continue our work in the fight for rights-based, coproduced, universally provided social care – reframed as the right to independent living in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – in our own combined authority area, and in solidarity with disabled people across England.”
Tower Hamlets council says in budget documents that the end of charging will provide “significant benefit” to residents and “a positive financial impact on personal incomes” but will also end the need for complex discussions and explanations about charging with service-users and families.
It says the move is likely to raise demand for care and support and increase the existing “significant” overspend on social care.
A spokesperson for the mayor of Tower Hamlets said: “Providing free homecare was a key manifesto commitment for mayor Lutfur Rahman and the Aspire party.
“We are delighted it has been fully provisioned as of the budget full council on 1 March, and will begin to take effect from April 2024.
“In the midst of the worst cost-of-living crisis in modern history, and after years of destructive austerity, relieving costs for Tower Hamlets residents – particularly vulnerable residents – is a top priority of this mayor and this administration.
“While we would have preferred to relieve said costs with immediate effect, we needed to follow a rigorous budget-setting process to ensure the money was properly allocated.”
The move by Tower Hamlets council comes as disabled people continue to press the Labour party nationally to support an end to care charging in its developing proposals for a National Care Service.
This week, Disability News Service reports that an influential inquiry that will feed into Labour’s policy-making process is set to rule out scrapping charges (see separate story).
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