Disabled campaigners have secured a significant victory over a local authority that threatened to force people with high support needs into residential care.
The grassroots group Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) had secured pro bono legal advice in its battle to persuade Bristol City Council (BCC) to abandon its draft Fair and Affordable Care Policy.
BRIL had argued that the draft policy breached the Care Act, the Human Rights Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In its response to a council consultation, which closed last week, BRIL said the policy was “fundamentally flawed, likely unlawful, and would cause misery to many disabled people and their family and friends in Bristol”.
It said many disabled people had experienced “significant worry and distress” since BCC published its draft policy last year, when Disability News Service (DNS) first reported BRIL’s concerns.
But just days after submitting its response, and following a much-praised column written by disabled journalist Frances Ryan in the Guardian, the council abandoned its policy.
The council is Labour-run under a Labour mayor, although the Green party has the most seats.
In a letter to Bristol Disability Equality Commission (BDEC), a body set up by the council two years ago, Cllr Helen Holland, the Labour cabinet member with responsibility for adult social care, said the council’s cabinet and its mayor had decided that “the policy will not be taken forward at this time”.
Holland said in her letter that the financial crisis facing every adult social care department in England was a result of chronic underfunding caused by “central government austerity over the last 14 years, as well as the lack of progress on long promised reform”.
She said she had noted “the strong concerns that some Disabled people in our city and nationally have raised” about the council’s draft policy.
And she asked BDEC’s chair, Alun Davies, to set up a new group that would “consider how to build a system to fairly allocate Adult Social Care funding within the agreed budget to meet the diverse needs of the population”.
Davies is a former acting chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, and a former city councillor.
Mark Williams, BRIL’s co-founder, said they welcomed the withdrawal of the policy and hoped to “work in a positive way to help the council to deliver a fairer system”.
He added: “BRIL would like to thank everyone all over the country for their support and hope it will make other local authorities work in partnership with disabled people before doing anything that may harm their quality of life.”
But BRIL said it was still concerned by parts of the letter.
They pointed out that disabled people were not to blame for the financial crisis, and despite recognising the harm caused by 14 years of government cuts to local authorities, they said “councils must still make choices with communities, and decisions that are both lawful and in the interests of people they aim to serve”.
They also warned that the “allocation of support based on budgets, rather than need, may lead to unlawful decisions contrary to the Care Act 2014”.
And they said they feared that the new working group would not be independent and “genuinely co-produced with disabled people and our organisations” because its terms appeared already to have been set by the council.
BRIL also said that the decision to ask the new working group to produce a report by 1 October would pass responsibility for the decision onto whoever has control of the council after May’s local elections and will “only add to the worries of disabled people and families”.
One disabled person from Bristol told DNS that the council had failed to acknowledge the fear its consultation had caused among disabled people, and that Cllr Holland’s letter “clearly shows they haven’t accepted the concerns of disabled people, or the legal arguments made against their policy”.
He said: “Setting up an ‘inquiry’ led and controlled by themselves, with hand-picked representatives, is clearly an attempt to shut down any genuine dialogue or co-production.
“However, disabled people will not accept this. Neither will we forget that the council considered this unlawful, immoral and ableist policy was acceptable in the first place.
“By doing this they have not only kicked the issue ‘into the long grass’, but they have also laid a trap for disabled people, families, and our city as a whole, by delaying action until after the local elections.”
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “At the invitation of Cllr Helen Holland, Alun Davies will be forming a group to develop a framework by October to meet the diverse needs of the city’s residents while fairly allocating adult social care funding within the agreed budget.
“All consultation responses received over recent months will be used to inform this work.
“Like all councils, we continue to face a cost-of-operating crisis after social care costs and demand have risen significantly over recent years.
“Despite this challenge, and continuing national austerity, we have delivered and will continue to deliver our duties in line with the Care Act.”
The draft policy (PDF) had said that disabled people could be offered a “residential or nursing home placement” if “a care package to remain at home would substantially exceed the affordability of residential care”, and it had warned that “exceptions” to this policy were “likely to be rare”.
If no agreement was reached about such a placement, the council would only offer funding for direct payments up to the cost of the residential care option, with the disabled person needing to make up the difference themselves to cover the rest of the support they needed to continue living independently at home.
BRIL’s response to the consultation had included a legal position based on pro bono advice from Oliver Lewis and Alice Irving, barristers at Doughty Street Chambers.
Picture: City Hall, Bristol
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