Disabled trade unionists have backed plans drawn up by disabled people’s organisations that would solve the social care crisis by introducing a national independent living support service (NILSS).
The backing from the TUC’s annual Disabled Workers’ Conference provides fresh impetus for the plans, which have been drawn up by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) of disabled people’s organisations.
ROFA set out its plans at a parliamentary meeting last month, while they were also presented to campaigners attending a parliamentary event last week that was organised by the Reclaim Social Care campaign.
A series of speakers at this week’s conference in Bournemouth told fellow delegates that there was no doubt that the current social care system was in crisis.
The motion, proposed by the Unite union, blamed the austerity cuts of successive Conservative-led governments, which had produced a “failing system unable to meet current need”.
Unite’s Mark Dunk said an NILSS would include a legal right to independent living, with support free for those in need, funded by general taxation and managed by central government.
The service would be led by disabled people and delivered locally in co-production with disabled people.
Although there was some opposition from delegates from two unions to the plans, the motion was overwhelmingly passed.
GMB’s John Grant described how his disabled mother-in-law had fallen over in her home but had been unable to call for help because she could not afford the £8-a-week cost of a personal alarm.
She was forced to stay jammed between the freezer and a wall in her kitchen for more than 17 hours until her daughter found her the next morning.
Grant said the social care crisis, which meant disabled people could not afford the support they needed, was “a disgrace” and “absolutely shocking”.
Dunk said there was no doubt that social care was in crisis, with a postcode lottery of support.
He said: “It’s a lottery where no-one wins, it’s just a case of how badly you lose.
“Rising levels of charging are pushing people out of getting the care that they need.
“The system needs a radical overhaul before the situation for disabled people is allowed to sink to even more barbaric lows than it has already.
“Doing nothing is not an option. We need a national independent living support service.”
The National Education Union’s Mandy Hudson said that disabled people had a right to independent living.
She said: “It’s our right and we need to reassert that right and continue to fight for it.”
She said local authorities had lost 65 per cent of their funding because of the government’s austerity measures.
She said: “That’s why it needs to be a core provision from the state. In order to enjoy the fullness of our lives, our personal and professional lives, we need to enjoy that right to independent living.”
Wendy Willis, from USDAW, criticised the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund in 2015, which she said was “a cost-cutting measure with no consideration for the needs of disabled people” and had left disabled people “at the mercy of the postcode lottery of care”.
She said: “This motion is about defending our rights to live independent lives and control our own futures.”
Another delegate to support the Unite motion, Brian Aylward, from the Musicians’ Union, who lives in Northern Ireland, employs a personal assistant using direct payments.
He said: “Six hours a week means the difference between having a life and having an existence. If I didn’t have that support, I would only have an existence.”
He said the ILF closure was “an absolute scandal” and showed “the fundamental attack this disgraceful government has made on our community right from the word go”.
But two unions expressed concerns about the plans.
Cath McGuinness, from UNISON, whose members work in both the NHS and social care, said she had reservations about the motion.
She said a national service “sounds good in principle” but she questioned how it would fit in with the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which all have responsibility for social care.
She also questioned how such plans would fit in with her union’s support for Labour policy on seeking to integrate health and social care.
And she said UNISON would need reassurance that the “discredited” system of commissioning social care services – “where private sector companies all too often deliver a bargain basement service and exploit our workers” – would not be replicated under the new system, which would instead be “delivered and not just managed or commissioned by the public sector”.
She also said UNISON would need to know how any changes would affect members who work in the private sector.
She said: “We would battle for them to be brought back in-house by local councils.”
She told the conference: “So we support the motion but look forward to further detailed discussion on how it might be implemented in practice across the four nations of the UK.”
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) opposed the motion.
CWU’s Jonathan Bellshaw also pointed to the devolution issue, and said he believed any new system should be funded by taxes on companies like Amazon and Google, rather than general taxation.
But he also said any campaign for a new system should not wait for a Labour government, telling delegates: “Let’s take the fight to the Tories… and demand to have this now.”
The day after the motion was carried, the conference held a panel discussion on independent living (pictured).
Sean McGovern, who chaired the discussion, and chairs the TUC’s disabled workers’ committee, said social care was facing a “perfect storm”, with care packages “cut to ribbons” and disabled people receiving the “barest minimum of care” and being “imprisoned in their own homes”.
Mark Harrison, from ROFA, said the system was “broken beyond repair” and the NILSS proposals provided a “bold vision for a different way of doing things” that was “based on the lived experience of disabled people”.
He said the devolved nations would be able to decide which parts of the proposals they wanted to introduce, and that the burden of funding the new system would fall mostly on those who could afford to pay, through the UK’s progressive income tax system, as with the NHS.
Ellen Clifford, from Disabled People Against Cuts, said the NILSS plans were still being developed, but were based on “a consensus that has been building in the disabled persons’ movement for the last seven years” and “built on what was so successful about the ILF”.
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