Tens of thousands of disabled people across the country are having debt collection action taken against them every year by their local authorities over unpaid care charges, information secured by disabled campaigners has revealed.
Cheshire Disabled People Against Cuts (CDPAC) and Inclusion London have been sent figures showing that thousands of individuals had debt management procedures taken against them in 2020-21 for unpaid care charges for non-residential care, across just six local authorities in the north-west of England.
If those figures are replicated across the rest of the 150 local councils that provide social care, it could mean more than 100,000 disabled people in England have been left in debt because their local authority has asked them to pay for social care in their own homes.
CDPAC said the research had “uncovered a disturbing picture of disabled residents pushed into care charge debt in high numbers by their local authority”.
Both CDPAC and Inclusion London are among disabled people’s organisations pushing the government and opposition parties to support an end to all care charges.
Among the local authorities that provided figures under the Freedom of Information Act, all Labour-run, Wigan council said that 4,649 service-users had been charged for their non-residential care in 2020-21, while more than 4,633 “clients” had received at least a “first and final notice” letter for non-payment of care charges since April 2018.
Cheshire East Council said more than 2,900 service-users were charged for non-residential social care in 2020-21 and that it currently had “1,623 debtors relating to Adult Social Care”, although this also includes those in debt for residential care charges.
Cheshire West and Cheshire Council charged nearly 2,500 individuals for non-residential social care in 2020-21, with the council receiving more than £5.4 million from charges that year.
So far, in 2021-22 – the council was unable to provide figures for the previous three years –916 service-users have “fallen into a recovery process”.
Neighbouring Halton council said it received more than £4.7 million in non-residential care charges from 477 service-users in 2020-21.
Halton sent out letters or emails relating to non-payment of non-residential social care charges to 2,175 “clients” in 2020-21, although it stressed that this included “client debt accumulated from previous years”.
St Helens council told CDPAC that it had sent out 2,473 letters about non-payment of non-residential care charges in 2020-21 – it is currently charging about 2,200 people a year for such care – although it stressed that this was the number of letters it had sent out, with many of the service-users affected likely to have received more than one letter.
And in Oldham, which had nearly 2,100 service-users charged for their non-residential social care in 2020-21, the council said it had sent out about 2,000 debt recovery letters since April 2018.
A spokesperson for CDPAC called on the councils to “urgently review their debt recovery codes of practice” and clarify how pursuing disabled people with support needs for care charge arrears upholds the Care Act’s “wellbeing principle”.
She said: “Thousands of disabled residents are struggling to pay their council’s home care bills.
“Ultimately, the scandal of social care charging must end, with provision delivered on NHS terms.”
She said the councils should cancel care charge debts and freeze care charges for 2022-23, and take other interim measures to ease the amount disabled people are being asked to pay by their councils.
These interim measures would include increasing the minimum amount all service-users must be left with after paying charges (the minimum income guarantee) and raising the amount of disability-related expenses they can use to offset their care charges.
Among those CDPAC called on to act this week was Cheshire MP Mike Amesbury, Labour’s shadow local government minister.
It said he should “condemn the practice of local authority debt recovery against disabled people with statutory care and support needs” and should call on the Labour council leaders of Cheshire West and Chester, Halton and Cheshire East councils to “urgently implement the measures we have outlined to mitigate the intersecting cost of living and social care charging crises”.
The Labour party had failed by noon today (Thursday) to respond to three requests to comment on the new figures.
Halton council and Cheshire West and Cheshire Council had also failed to comment by noon today.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) declined to say if it was concerned at the number of disabled people receiving debt-related letters over their care charges, whether the figures showed councils should stop charging disabled people for their care and support, or whether the government itself should scrap all social care charges.
But a DHSC spokesperson said in a statement: “We know the potentially vulnerable nature of this group which is why we guide local authorities to approach repayments from those receiving non-residential care and support sensitively, bearing in mind the individual’s circumstances, to ensure affordable arrangements are agreed.
“For many councils, adult social care is their largest area of spending and centrally we are continuing to prioritise it through a £5.4 billion investment over the next three years to reform and make major improvements to the system.”
DHSC also said that another £1 billion in funding was being made available to councils in 2022-23 for social care, and that the government had a duty to recover money owed to taxpayers.
Meanwhile, disabled activists in Bristol have raised concerns over proposed cuts of £11 million to the adult social care budget in the city.
Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said the cuts “threaten the lives of disabled people who are already struggling with reduced support services and have been the hardest hit by the pandemic”.
BRIL said that a council consultation carried out in December was inaccessible to many residents and did not include details of the budgetary proposals.
One BRIL member said: “I feel terrified of the social care budget cuts. The immediate impact is to reduce my ability to function and make decisions.”
Bristol City Council said the cuts would be introduced over the next five years, and most of them were now subject to further consultation.
A spokesperson said: “There are a number of proposals to introduce savings over the next five years which are all aimed at driving efficiencies rather than reducing access or cutting services.
“All of the proposals aim to deliver support in better ways that improve outcomes rather than cause any negative impact on the lives of disabled people.
“We have done some initial consultation with local organisations, but many of the saving proposals will require further detailed consultation.”
Picture: Cheshire West and Chester Council offices in Ellesmere Port, by Google
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